The Food4KidsWR Story: Kelly-Sue Oberle
We’re a few minutes into our conversation when Kelly-Sue’s phone springs to life with the Sherwood Forest ringtone. It’s appropriate given her mission: to encourage members of the community who have enough, to give to those who do not.
Kelly-Sue has worked with several nutrition programs in Waterloo Region, and she knows that children in need receive food at school during the school-week. But for hundreds of children living with chronic food insecurity, heading home on a Friday afternoon means the food stops until they return to school. That was a fact she wasn’t willing to live with.
Kelly-Sue launched Food4KidsWR from her dining room table on January 13, 2017, with 19 children enrolled. Within two years, Food4KidsWR grew to provide food for roughly 600 children on weekends, and 200 children each day of the week during the 12 weeks of school holidays.
There is no means test to qualify; the schools recognize families that are struggling and call Food4KidsWR to sign them up. For every family the schools sign up, Kelly-Sue and her team put together a bag of 16 to 20 items for each child aged 14 years of age and younger in the home.
Each food box gives kids a sense of security and normalcy
Each food bag contains at least two protein sources, such as tuna, a high-protein soup, or a can of Costco chicken which can feed the entire family for several days. Food4KidsWR often provides simple recipe ideas, such as chilli and spaghetti, along with all the required ingredients. They try to account for the fact that families may only have a microwave or cooktop to heat their food, and that these children are often cooking and eating alone.
Cereals, shelf-stable milk products, and snacks to grab and go are also included. Each child also receives at least two vegetables such as mini-carrots, cut-up broccoli, or bags of peas. The goal is to provide the children with a sense of stability and security by giving them foods they can access and eat on their own.
While the majority of the food is nutritious, each child receives one item considered to be junk food, such as a bag of chips or a chewy granola bar. They’re included to help the kids feel more like their friends and schoolmates.
The impact of this one “normalizing food item” hit home one day last year when Kelly-Sue had just dropped off food bags at a school. She pulled up to a stop sign near the school, her van covered in Food4KidsWR decals. A group of Grade 7 boys walked past her van, talking and laughing, each eating from their own bag of chips. One boy caught sight of the decals on Kelly-Sue’s van and backed up a few steps, peering into the vehicle. When he caught her eye, he pointed at her, and then at the bag of chips. Then he held up both hands together and formed them into a heart.
His friends called him and he ran to join them. The other boys didn’t notice what had transpired; it was a moment just for Kelly-Sue. A moment where he was telling her that he knew Food4KidsWR was the reason he had this bag of chips and was able to walk along with the other boys and just be one of them. For him, it was a moment of normalcy in what might otherwise be a chaotic and insecure life.
For better or worse, often the only constant in these kids’ lives are their parents. These families are usually part of a transient society, renting their homes and frequently having to move when they can’t afford to stay where they are. The constant moving makes it a challenge for both the kids and parents to form long-term friendships in their schools and neighbourhoods, and they end up feeling shut off from the community.
These children tend to come from families that are chronically hungry. They don’t use the food bank because their situation isn’t emergency-driven; it’s driven by a cycle of poverty that they can’t get out of. Sometimes people ask me “Why don’t they just get a job?” They do have jobs, but their jobs don’t make enough money to put a roof over their head, pay their bills, and feed their kids.
Cycles of Poverty Impact Everyone, Not Just Those Who Go Hungry
The cycle of poverty creates hopelessness; these families are working hard but not getting anywhere and they don’t see a way out. Part of Kelly-Sue’s desire is to give the families a connection to community and to the school, to help build trust and hope.
“We’re feeding them, but that’s only one issue,” says Kelly-Sue. “I love the model of wrapping around the child and trying to help them in every way, but we’re not there yet. So we start with this.”
It’s a tremendous start that has an impact far beyond filling an empty stomach. Chronic hunger affects the socio-economic growth of an entire society. A child who goes hungry suffers inadequate brain growth which has a long-term impact on their behaviour, health, and cognitive abilities. This ends up putting a toll on societal health costs and incarceration costs as hopeless children grow up to be hopeless adults who sometimes take desperate action. When you feel like you don’t matter, then you don’t care what you do.
Food4KidsWR gives kids the nutrition needed to fuel their growth, as well as hope and the sense that they do matter, and the parents get to share in that feeling.
When kids come home and put that food bag on the counter and it makes their parents smile, it gives the child a sense of power over their circumstance, it makes them feel that they’ve done something to help out the family. And it gives the parents a sense of connection to the community, and a belief that their community cares about them. Each bag of food has such a huge impact on these families.
Food4KidsWR’s Response to COVID19
When the Waterloo Region schools didn’t reopen after March break due to the COVID19 pandemic, Kelly-Sue started getting phone calls from the families of the 600 children who would normally receive food at school. Provincial programs responsible for feeding kids during the week hadn’t yet determined how to handle the school shut-down, so Kelly-Sue and her team stepped up to feed all of those children. Every day. For four months.
There were logistics to overcome as the volunteers who normally met to pack up the bags weren’t able to do so during the lockdown. Throughout the months of April and May, Food4KidsWR provided the families with $177,000 in the form of grocery cards which were delivered to every household each week by the children’s teachers. During May, Don’s Produce supplied boxes full of fresh fruits and vegetables for each family which was such a treat for these families who generally can’t afford fresh produce. Along with the box, each family received a grocery card to buy milk, yoghurt, eggs, and bread.
Providing food every day from March break through to September increased Food4KidsWR’s budget by hundreds of thousands of dollars, and Kelly-Sue says if another school shut-down occurs, they won’t be able to do it again. The Hamilton Family Brighter Futures breakfast is usually a high point in Food4KidsWR’s fundraising year, but of course this year COVID19 has cancelled that event. Dealing with an inflated budget and fewer opportunities for raising community awareness means they need new ways to raise funds to continue to help children in need.
Coffee4Kids has a plan to help.
Find out all about Coffee4Kids, their plan, and how you can be part of it, in Part 2.
How You Can Help Now
If you’re looking for ways to help Food4KidsWR, you can make a one-time or monthly donation, contact Kelly-Sue about volunteering to package food, or ask her what food items she’s looking for this month and make a food donation. You can also buy coffee for your home or your office through Coffee4Kids – an amazing social-entrepreneurial effort that directs all profits to Food4KidsWR.