The Mustard Seed anticipates even more families will be relying on its free school lunch program in 2023.
Byron Bradley, central Alberta managing director, said last year requests for lunches jumped 25 per cent, or an extra 110 lunches per day.
“We think in 2023 we’ll just continue to see a rise in demand. The cost of living is really squeezing a lot of families,” Bradley said.
Between 8,000 and 10,000 lunches go out each month to 46 schools in Red Deer, Sylvan Lake, Innisfail, Bowden, Delburne and Elnora.
He said more families are coming to Mustard Seed’s support centre for dinner, and to access the family doctor who is at the centre Wednesday evening. Health advocates are also available to support families.
“Some people think of the Mustard Seed as just working with people experiencing homelessness. But probably half of the people we care for are not homeless. They’re impacted by poverty of some kind.”
He said with the price of food up 14 per cent, costs for lunches have risen. Despite recent grants from the Alberta government and support from Red Deer Public Schools, the program is running a deficit. Continued community support is needed and fundraising events are necessary.
Volunteers are also needed to make the lunches, which starts at about 6:30 a.m., and to deliver lunches to schools during the week.
The free weekend backpack meal program, offered by the Red Deer Salvation Army, is another program that helps feed local students.
Currently 256 students at 24 schools in Red Deer and one school in Blackfalds receive backpacks that are refilled each week during the school year with easy meals children and teens can prepare. The majority of students participating in the program attend elementary schools, or schools that serve kindergarten to Grade 8 or 9 students.
Major Kent Hepditch said the program focuses on providing food for the weekend when student lunches from the Mustard Seed aren’t available.
“There’s enough meals for all day Saturday and all day Sunday,” Hepditch said.
He said the program is only possible with the community’s donations at Christmas time and throughout the year.