School, church build unique partnership amid rising demand for meal programs

As school leaders grapple with rising grocery costs and securing dollars for meal programs, members of a Charleswood church have taken it upon themselves to serve hundreds of hot lunches to their young neighbours at a nearby elementary school every weekday.

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This article was published 18/10/2022 (222 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

As school leaders grapple with rising grocery costs and securing dollars for meal programs, members of a Charleswood church have taken it upon themselves to serve hundreds of hot lunches to their young neighbours at a nearby elementary school every weekday.

The 2022-23 school year marks the third of its kind volunteers from Oasis Church have made it their mission to prepare and deliver meals to Westgrove School, from Monday through Friday.

The current menu includes spaghetti on Mondays, quesadillas on Tuesdays, ham-and-cheese sandwiches — with a halal option available — on Wednesdays, grilled cheese on Thursdays, and chicken and lettuce sandwiches Fridays.

Carrot sticks, muffins and other snacks are also packed into brown paper bags volunteers hand out. The packages, each decorated with a sticker that states: “With love from Oasis,” are accompanied by a juice box or another beverage.

“We want to make sure that the lunches that we make, we would have served our own children or our own grandchildren. We’re not going to be serving anything less than that,” said Tom Cooney, a member of Oasis who got the program up-and-running in the fall of 2019.


Oasis church volunteer Tom Cooney carries in a large box of lunches Monday to students at Westgrove School as part of the hot bagged lunch program.

The retired accountant said the congregation was eager to support the partnership when he pitched the idea; it was less than a full week between the time he brought forward the proposal until volunteers, most of whom are retirees, began dropping off food.

Church members currently provide weekday lunches to about 80 students whose parents opt-in to the program or about two-thirds of the elementary student population.


Grade one students Janiah (from left), Norah and Reese wait in line to pick up their lunch on Monday.

Cooney said he has long-wanted to launch an initiative to support low-income families facing food insecurity because he grew up in the inner city and recalls his household greatly appreciating hampers and free deliveries it received.

Westgrove, a K-5 building in the Westdale neighbourhood — located approximately seven kilometres west of Oasis — is home to a diverse student population that includes pupils who live in a Manitoba Housing complex close to the school.

Every academic year, education leaders seek out partnerships and write grant applications to cobble together meal program money. It is not uncommon for a single school to rely on numerous funding sources, including, but not limited to: school divisions; parent advisory councils; and groups like the Child Nutrition Council of Manitoba.


As church co-ordinator Tom Cooney helps hand out lunches, organize the volunteers and deliver the food to the school.

In the spring of 2020, as families grappled with financial uncertainties brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, the provincial nutrition council recorded a spike in grant requests. It was then organizers created a wait list, the first of its kind since the council was founded in 2001.

What makes the relationship between Oasis and Westgrove so unique is how much support the former is offering the latter, and with no strings attached, according to the principal of the elementary school.

“It has just been amazing to see the community wrapping around schools during these stressful few years, because without that support, it’s easy to feel all alone,” said Shannon Shields, the new leader at Westgrove.


Grade one student, Reese, picks up her lunch along with other Westgrove School students.

During the height of the pandemic, even amid e-learning periods, Oasis continued serving students outside the school.

Volunteers buy ingredients and prepare them in church and home kitchens. Aside from Natural Bakery’s weekly donation of 60 loaves to Oasis — the overwhelming majority of which are taken to Westgrove — church members fund the program out of their own pockets.


Grade 2 student, Tahani, enjoys some fresh carrots inside her hot bagged lunch.

Cooney estimates the group has served 40,000 lunches to date. When the effort began, he said it spent an average of $1.50 on each individual meal. Inflation has raised that figure to around $1.90.

An increase in school demand for healthy breakfast, lunch and snack subsidies recently prompted the province to double its annual commitment to the Child Nutrition Council of Manitoba.

More than 300 school meal programs are being at least partially funded by the council in 2022-23.

“With the increase in provincial funding along with funds raised from other donors we are able to provide grants to schools that cover about 20 per cent of their food costs,” wrote Clara Birnie, a community dietitian who oversees the council’s grant program.


Grade 4 students, Isabella and Adelaide tuck in to their lunches.

Ten programs remain on the wait list, but Birnie said the council is working with them to see what their needs are.

“We continue to fundraise, so that with rising food costs and increased need, we are able to continue to provide grants at this level in future years,” she added.

Not long after the Oasis-Westgrove program rolled out, Cooney said he started hearing from educators that both attendance and student results had improved.

The retiree said his church intends to work with the elementary school “for a long time,” and is considering an expansion to support middle-years pupils at Westdale School, located around the corner from Westgrove.

“There isn’t a school out there that doesn’t address nutrition or social-emotional well-being, because our kids don’t learn (if they are hungry or unwell),” Shields said, adding her community is incredibly grateful for Oasis Church’s support.

“We have to meet (students) where they’re at.”


Oasis Church provides 80 meals to Westgrove School students each and every weekday as part of a community initiative to ensure students are fed healthy meals.

Twitter: @macintoshmaggie

Maggie Macintosh

Maggie Macintosh

Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.

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