TORONTO - Some kids across Canada aren't eager to hear that final bell signalling school's out for the summer. They'd rather stay in school because it means they get at least one nutritious meal a day, says chef Michael Smith.
The end of school means the end of the school lunch program for many children from low-income families.
"And this is a big part of going to school for a lot of kids in Canada is that lunch program, getting that good healthy nutritious lunch every day," Smith said.
Each month, close to 900,000 Canadians are assisted by food banks, and 38 per cent of those helped are children and youth, according to the Food Banks Canada website.
But a summer lunch program called Feeding Our Future, established by the Sodexo Foundation in 2000, partners with community hunger relief organizations to provide free summer lunches to children in need. Smith, who's well known for hosting such Food Network Canada programs as "Chef Michael's Kitchen," "Chef Abroad" and the "Chef at Home" series, as well as authoring several cookbooks, has been involved for about a half-dozen years with the program.
The initiative was launched in Toronto with support from the kitchen of a Sodexo client and the food rescue program Second Harvest and has expanded to eight other cities across the country — Vancouver, Calgary, Regina, Winnipeg, Oakville, Ont., Ottawa, Montreal and Halifax.
Sodexo, a food and facilities management company, provides the funds and infrastructure for the foundation. Any money raised goes directly to the meals, Smith said. A client with a kitchen that has little traffic during summer months — a university cafeteria kitchen, for example — might become the site for meal preparation. The meals are then distributed to the children at various locations, such as summer camps.
"We're able to use those kitchens to produce nutritious lunches with all volunteers within our company and also our suppliers who are very good to donate the food that we then turn into nutritious lunches," Smith explained in an interview from Brampton, Ont., ahead of an address to the Sodexo Foundation.
More than 900,000 lunches have been produced since 2001 and they expect to hit one million this summer, said Smith, who hails from Prince Edward Island.
Many children are out the door in the morning without breakfast and also might not have a proper meal in the evening.
"(Lunch) becomes the one thing they have to look forward to every day. It's a big deal. We take lunch for granted. These kids do not take lunch for granted," said Smith, who is the national sustainability advocate for this initiative.
"You see the look in the kids' eyes when they're receiving their food," he added. "I can't stress how much we take this for granted, how important it is that every kid in Canada gets a meal every day."
Recipients range in age from three up to teens in high school. The lunch usually consists of a flavourful sandwich, fruit that can be eaten from the hand, such as an apple, orange or banana, a little treat like a cookie, and juice.
Each summer there's an event such as a barbecue in each of the nine cities, where the children can bring their families and take part in games, face painting and other fun activities.
Volunteers range from people in the community to chefs, cooks and office staff within the Sodexo company.
"If we can inspire people in communities across Canada to volunteer for these events, to help out, they're welcome to join the fun," Smith said.
"There's nothing like the charge you get out of doing something good for someone else."