It’s a morning coffee break that will open your eyes – not in the usual caffeine- or sugar-induced way, but to all the kids in Ottawa who don’t have to learn on empty stomachs thanks to an inclusive nutrition program to help fuel and energize them.
The Ottawa Network for Education (ONFE) is hosting 15-minute virtual coffee breaks all next week to celebrate the 30th anniversary of its School Breakfast Program. The non-profit organization is inviting the public to sit back and relax with Café Spark while it builds awareness and support for a program that typically feeds 13,500 students a day.
“That’s a lot of kids in a city that most people think of as, you know, a ‘fat cat’ city,” said Mychelle Mollot, chair of Café Spark and chief marketing officer of Kanata-based software firm Solace, which is a co-presenting sponsor of the event with National Bank, Emond Harnden LLP, the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, the Ottawa Catholic School Board, École Catholiques Centre-Est and Conseil des écoles publiques de l’Est de l’Ontario.
Ottawa is “pretty well off” with its booming high-tech sector and legions of public servants, she said. “Yet, there are lots of kids who go hungry every day. For me, Café Spark is a way to open peoples’ eyes to that reality.”
Throughout the pandemic, ONFE has been making sure students from kindergarten to Grade 12 continue to have access to healthy food, whether they’re learning at school or at home. The organization has had to pivot faster than a Lazy Susan as schools closed, reopened, closed and reopened again.
ONFE has been creating monthly food kits that Jack Larabie Distributions has been delivering to food cupboards and small social services organizations, or community houses, around the city. The organization continues to work with its 190 partner schools from four different school boards. Principals, teachers and administrative staff have stepped up, taking the place of the volunteers in order to distribute safely packaged food to students.
Each year, ONFE has to raise about $550,000 through community donations. Not only is the number of students accessing the program on the rise but food costs have tripled, said Ashley Richer, advancement manager of ONFE.
“It’s really critical for us to continue our fundraising efforts,” she said.
Even small changes to the program are adding up, she said. For example, the program had to switch from milk that can be poured from plastic bags into separate cups to small, individual milk cartons.
“That cost alone is an additional $250,000 this year,” said Richer.
The pandemic forced ONFE to postpone its signature Spark Soirée this past fall. With social gatherings still on hold for the time being, the organization decided to change its format to a virtual event, recognizing that it could reach a greater number of people. The daily segments will inform the public about the School Breakfast Program, how it’s adapted to COVID-19 challenges, and the impact it’s made over the past three decades.
The coffee breaks can be watched live on Facebook or YouTube. They will also be posted on LinkedIn.
All donations made during Café Spark are being matched dollar to dollar, up to $35,000, by sponsors.
“I think this is probably even a better way to spread the word because you can get so many people involved,” said Mollot, who’s looking forward to having her colleagues learn more about the breakfast program and the millions of children it’s helped to feed over the past 30 years.
“I really do think there are a lot of people who want to help in this community but don’t understand the magnitude of challenges that others are facing.”
Korey Kealey has been involved with the School Breakfast Program for the past 16 years. She began as a volunteer parent serving breakfast to students at her kids’ local school before taking on a fundraising role. She now supports the program as a monthly donor, as well.
“This is an easy fit for me; I love feeding people,” said Kealey.
Kealey recently started a new career as a real estate broker at RE/MAX Hallmark Realty Group but is well-known in Ottawa as a foodie influencer and entrepreneur. She’s the founder of Enerjive, a Canadian-based company offering gluten-free crackers and cookies that she sold in 2017 to Neal Brothers Brands & Distribution. She continues to appear regularly as a food and lifestyle contributor on CTV Ottawa.
“Kids are going to school hungry and we’re trying our best to help,” said Kealey.