changemaker Susan Wright tending to a garden in white pants and blue shirt

Portrait Photography By Sian Richards,  Summerlunch+ photographs by Susan Wright

How Summerlunch+ helps kids eat better—and fights food insecurity

Susan Wright steps in when school’s out to help provide kids in the GTA with nutritious midday meals

On a recent weekday, between playing sports, making crafts and participating in activities, students in Toronto’s Thorncliffe Park community tucked into a nutritious, colourful lunch of DIY brown rice bowls filled with grilled peppers and zucchini.

Animated scene of changemaker Susan Wright parting plants

It’s all thanks to Summerlunch+, a lunch program for kids in the Toronto communities of Thorncliffe Park, Regent Park, Alexandra Park and Moss Park. But what made this meal particularly unique is that it took place during the summer, when many resources for kids experiencing poverty or food insecurity are on pause. According to the organization’s website, one million Canadian kids depend on school lunch programs for healthy meals—until summer vacation, when those resources are no longer available. And that’s exactly the problem Summerlunch+ is looking to solve.

“Gosh, there must be something better”

Founded by Susan Wright, who worked in both the corporate and charitable sectors for more than 20 years, Summerlunch+ opened its doors in Thorncliffe Park in the summer of 2016. But the idea came to Wright months before that, when she realized there was a lack of resources for kids and families when school was out. Then the regional director for Ontario at the Breakfast Club of Canada, she oversaw a team that was responsible for managing more than 500 breakfast programs in schools across the province. Every year she received requests or inquiries about programs that children could rely on during the summer. But there just wasn’t much to recommend.

“I thought to myself, ‘Gosh, there must be something better,’” she says. “I did research and found that almost all the major developing countries have summer programs that support kids. There was a gap here in Canada.”

Two young people in blue and green shirts eating lunch

But becoming a parent was what inspired her to take the risky step of going out on her own to change that. “I always worked with organizations that had a focus on kids,” she says. “But it was only after my maternity leave, and trying to feed my son [who is now eight years old], that I realized how important food and nutrition would be to giving kids a good start in life.”

In two years, the program has served up 25,000 meals

That first year, she worked with donor partners and a food wholesaler to serve camp-goers in Thorncliffe Park. Her intention for the program was to provide healthy, locally sourced, free lunches for campers ages seven to 17, as well as food literacy lessons that would encourage them to learn about the benefits of what they were eating.

Since then, Wright and her team have served over 25,000 meals and delivered more than 7,500 hours of food literacy training. She’s also expanded to offer Summerlunch+ throughout July and August in priority neighbourhoods including Moss Park, Regent Park and Alexandra Park and even partnered with local gardens, which provide another food literacy lesson. “We take the kids there so that they can see the food growing,” she says.

Man adds ingredients to large, square pizzas

Wright’s work has not gone unnoticed. Summerlunch+ has received local honours like an Award of Recognition from former Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, as well as a grant from the Toronto Community Foundation. “The future looks super bright,” says Wright. “I’m so excited about feeding more kids in Toronto and, ideally, expanding outside of the city, so that we can help kids in other communities.”

Wright even gets picky eaters to eat their veggies

And the feedback from parents—who were also present at that burrito bowl lunch, which Wright describes as a big party—is great, too. Surrounded by students who are all digging into their peppers and zucchini, one mother turns to Wright and says, “I don’t know how you get my son to eat vegetables. He doesn’t eat like that at home!”

Woman cuts leafy green vegetables on red cutting board

So, just how does she get picky eaters to eat produce? Wright says the fact that campers are surrounded by peers, not parents, is key. After all, if a child’s friends are trying something new, they might be more inclined to do the same. She’s also found that DIY-style meals are always a hit—think make-your-own salads, rice bowls and wraps. “If they’ve made the meal themselves, they’re more likely to eat it,” she says. “And if all you do is offer nutritious items, then they’re going to put together something that’s healthy.” Other winning dishes for campers have included chicken shawarma pizza and spinach and cheese quiche.

But Wright says the most rewarding response she’s received so far was from the students themselves. When she returned to the Thorncliffe Park community for her second summer, the campers greeted her by saying: “It’s nice to see you again, Summerlunch+ lady!” It’s a title she answers to with pride.

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