Nutrition for Learning tackles solving hunger as a means to an educational end
By Paul Knowles
In 2015, Mary D’Alton faced one of the toughest assignments of her life – she had to tell the 200 or so staff members at the Waterloo Inn that the place had been sold, and their positions were all terminated. She recalls telling them, “You are not your job,” trying to assure them that there could be a positive future for them even if their employment situation was changing dramatically.

Of course, the same was true for D’Alton, herself. She had been President and Managing Director of the Waterloo Inn Conference Hotel since 2000, but her job was also over.

So D’Alton set out to find her own future – and in the process, has made an immediate impact on the lives of thousands of other people. Because since leaving the Waterloo Inn, D’Alton has stepped in to lead Nutrition for Learning, the program that provides millions of meals to Waterloo Region students.

Nutritian for Learning Volunteer Parminder Bains with Mary D'Alton at Cedarbrae School, Waterloo. Bains prepares nutritional breakfasts for over a dozen students.

This came about because shortly after leaving the Waterloo Inn, D’Alton – already known for her volunteer activities in the community – was recruited as a volunteer for Nutrition for Learning. Five weeks into that volunteer stint, she was asked to become interim CEO, and she agreed – not as a volunteer, but on contract. She’s been in that position for 16 months, and will continue for the foreseeable future.

The numbers involved in Nutrition for Learning are astonishing. The organization feeds 23,000 students, every day, in 122 schools in the region.

The numbers involved in Nutrition for Learning are astonishing. The organization feeds 23,000 students, every day, in 122 schools in the region (with at least eight more asking for Nutrition for Learning programs). D’Alton says that “it takes an army” to operate on this scale – 1100 volunteers daily, from a total volunteer roster of about 2,500. ”We totally rely on volunteers,” she says.

Surprisingly, given our country’s reputation for social services, Canada is “one of the few western countries that don’t have a food program in schools,” says D’Alton. Nutrition for Learning works exclusively in Waterloo Region.

The organization employs seven full time and one part time staff members, facilitating a program that provided a mind-boggling 2.6 million meals in the last full school year. “I give great credit to the team I’m working with and to our board members,” says D’Alton.

The CEO stresses that although the program’s name starts with “Nutrition,” the key is actually the “Learning” component.

And she suggests an unlikely illustration of her point – the Snickers commercial in which feeble characters (such as Mr. Bean’s Rowan Atkinson) are transformed back into capable characters after they eat the candy bar. She’s not promoting sugar highs – but D’Alton is underlining the fact that kids who are hungry aren’t able to perform well in the classroom.

Mary D’Alton says that “it takes an army” to operate on this scale – 1100 volunteers daily, from a total volunteer roster of about 2,500.

That’s why, while the original focus of Nutrition for Learning (which started in 1997) may have been to feed kids from homes where nutritious food was not available for economic reasons, today, any kid who wants a meal gets one. D’Alton points out there are many reasons why kids may be hungry, not simply because of poverty, although that continues. Children may rush out without breakfast; they may spend pre-school hours with a sitter or in an early morning day care, where food is not provided; they may (being kids) lose or throw out food they don’t like.

She doesn’t care why they are hungry – she only cares that they get fed, so they are able to learn at their full capacity.

“Nutrition for Learning is not only about kids who have no money, getting food,” says D’Alton. “We’re concerned that no child is prevented from learning because they’re hungry. We cross all the socio-economic categories.”

She is very focused on this one goal. “I’m not here to retrain parents,” she insists. “I’m here to be a conduit to get good food to kids.”

Mary D'Alton with Deb Moore, Nutrition For Learning Program Coordinator

In order to fulfill that very large mandate, Nutrition for Learning has a number of diverse programs. Some schools have breakfast programs, where the children can sit down and eat; others have “grab and go” baskets of nutritious food (21 different items) available as they arrive at school.

In some cases, the organization gives money to the schools, which run the program themselves, including buying the food products. “In most cases,” though, “we do the buying and give it to the schools.” D’Alton says the program is always tailored to the needs of the individual school – there is “no cookie cutter” model followed across the board.

That’s because not only are the needs different, from school to school, but so are the physical structures. Older schools may have no kitchen or cafeteria, so that has to be taken into account.
D’Alton says the program is producing amazing results. The anecdotal feedback from teachers, principals, and caretakers is “extraordinary,” she says.

And the collateral “teaching opportunities” abound. Kids learn about hygiene – washing their hands, for instance – and about helping others. D’Alton tells of one child who was using the program, to the shock of the parent, who insisted it was not necessary. It turned out that the child was indeed well fed at home – but was attending the Nutrition for Learning program to support a friend who didn’t want to feel alone at the breakfast.

Nutrition for Learning gives kids “a fighting chance…. Teachers will tell you, you can’t even get them to think or talk to you if they’re hungry.”

The program, currently available to about three-quarters of Waterloo Region students – in both school boards – has a $1.5 million budget… which D’Alton is quick to point out is not enough, since there are still about 30% of schools in the region without the program. Funding comes from the Ontario Ministry of Children and Youth Services, through the local YMCA organization, and from “some of the most extraordinary and diverse corporate partners,” according to D’Alton, “all these people who are really committed to the cause.”

D’Alton is one of those people. As a volunteer throughout her life, she has been in situations where she has seen people lose hope – and thus give up any effort to have a meaningful or satisfying life. She has noticed that the issue of food has too often been at the heart of these struggles. So Nutrition for Learning, she believes, gives kids “a fighting chance…. Teachers will tell you, you can’t even get them to think or talk to you if they’re hungry.”

She’s also on board to give Nutrition for Learning a fighting chance, and part of that challenge involves fundraising. D’Alton has high praise for her corporate supporters, but she also admits that there is one area which is very difficult to fund – “Nobody wants to give you money to hire staff.” She believes the organization needs one or two community development officers, but available funding goes almost entirely to procurement of food.

She expects to be involved with the program for the near future. The job suits her, she says – “It’s not a big change for me. I’m still taking care of people.” And she believes that after her success in the corporate world, “If an opportunity arises where I can help out, I answer the call.”

She says that her job does include developing a successful, succession plan. “Part of the process will be looking for the right people, who can take this to the next level.” But she promises, “I will never leave until it’s okay.”

Part of the Exchange Magazine KPMG Feature Section in the May 2018 issue of Exchange Magazine

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ISSN 0824-45
Copyright, 2018.