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Local woman's lunch program helps families with food insecurity

The program has received community support from South Cambridge Zehrs and 100 Women Who Care Waterloo Region
Shalon Armstrong with her kids.

With community support, a Cambridge woman has formed a lunch program helping families in Hespeler fight food insecurity and give back.

On Sundays, Shalon Armstrong hands out food packages at Maranatha Christian Reformed Church. The packages, which are put together by volunteers, are given to over 40 families to help them provide lunches for their children. The program runs throughout most of the year with exception to the first week after Christmas.

"We give the families an opportunity to make their lunches at homes instead of sending their kids without anything," said Armstrong. "It gives so much back to the families and to the kids."

Though it started as a way to help others, Armstrong said the program has grown into a community. In the past, families part of the lunch program were invited to gather for a meal at the church one Sunday a month.

"I have a personal connection with each of the families, I know most of them pretty well, it's not just like they're picking up food, we're also a family and friends," she said, "and that is important for me to have that connection, so that this is a safe place so they can talk and be themselves, and vent if they need too."

Inspiration for the program came before 2019. Armstrong, an Ontario Disability Support Program recipient, said her caseworker invited her to an event to hear a speaker from the Cambridge Food Bank.

"She had mentioned there are kids who don't get sent to school because parents don't have food to send with their lunches, you know, some parents get notes saying 'Hey, send more food,' and 'Send healthier food,' and stuff like that," Armstrong said, recalling the discussion with the Cambridge Food Bank.

"After I heard that, that was not something that I could hear and not try and do something about."

That night, Armstrong said she went home and called the south Cambridge Zehrs and met with manager Dave Trenholm the following Friday. From there, the lunch program was created.

In the beginning of 2019, the lunch program began at Stewart Avenue Public School and Chalmers Street Public School. Armstrong explains the program supported about 40 kids at each school who went to class with little to nothing to eat for lunch.

"We left it in the classrooms with like the Nutrition 4 Learning and stuff like that, but we made sure every class had a couple of sandwiches, bananas and muffins and stuff like that in the classroom," said Armstrong.

This program went on for one year before the pandemic impacted their ability to enter schools. With a connection to Maranantha Church, Armstrong then decided to merge the lunch program and another outreach program she was running at the church, to continue to provide lunches.

"I have, I think, 90 kids right now. We've had more, some families have been able to move on," said Armstrong, adding the program 'fluctuates' and has 42 families in the program currently.

Besides the lunch program, Armstrong runs a food pantry at the church for families who need extra support.

"I provide non-perishables for them as long as I have donations," she said.

To help fund the program, Armstrong said the south Cambridge Zehrs has been providing $400 worth of gift cards every month since 2019. When operating out of the schools, Armstrong said this money went a long way, but now running out of the church, it is costing $400 a week.

Luckily, the lunch program was able to secure additional funding from 100 Women Who Care Waterloo Region. The organization donated $18,550 to the lunch program back in October 2021 after Armstrong made a presentation.

"We've been using that money to provide the food for the lunches each week as well," she said.

One day, Armstrong hopes there will not be a need for a program like this, but until then, she said she would love to see it continue to grow. She appreciates everyone who has volunteered donated and supported the lunch program.

"It's because of them that it has been able to continue and I am forever grateful to them, " said Armstrong. "Also to the families that show up each week, knowing them and building this little community has been one of the biggest joys of my life."

Currently, the program is need of non-parishable food items. Those who are interested in making a donation can contact Armstrong by email at [email protected] or call 647-892-7429.