B.C. kids struggle with hunger; calls grow for national school food program

With children out of school right now for spring break in B.C., there are definitely some out there who likely wish they were back in class, so they had access to food.

For reasons like the COVID-19 pandemic, cost of living crisis and just how expensive it is to buy groceries, hungry kids in the classroom appears to be a worsening problem right now.

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Cindy Waters is the executive director of the non-profit Chilliwack Bowls of Hope Society. She and her team deliver food to schools every morning and they’re distributed as the administration sees fit.

She says 17 years ago when she first started, they were serving about 20 students and one school. Now, it’s 26 schools at 28 sites and roughly 1,000 students.

“It’s unbelievable. We’re just trying to find a way to help them stay in school. Help them have the best ability to do their studies and retain information and not act up in class and those things are helped by having a full stomach.”

She feels the need is increasingly desperate.

“Sometimes parents are going without eating so they have food for their kids, so they’re really struggling right now. It’s not just ‘poor’ people, it’s average people who are struggling.”

A young child plays with colourful toys on the ground.

A young child plays with colourful toys on the ground. (iStock Photo)

Waters says the stories she and her staff encounter are heartbreaking.

“We did a crock pot program … and we had 10 kids in there and we were teaching them how to make meals in crock pots. There was one girl there and she was basically a caregiver for her mother and her grandmother, who were both either ill or disabled and sometimes she couldn’t come to school because she was taking them to a doctor’s appointment, or she just needed to be home with them. What she told us was she appreciated having the crock pot — we gave the crock pots to the kids… and she said, ‘You know, I just really appreciate being able to do this because it lets me spend more time with my mom and my grandmother.'”

Waters says there was a little boy whose story touched her as well.

“His mom had cancer and his father was a truck driver, so his father wasn’t home a lot. His mom, she didn’t want to eat a lot of the time, she wasn’t feeling well, so he was kind of left to his own devices… you never know what people are dealing with.”

She admits they try really hard to make the food they deliver nutritious because, for many, it’ll be the best meal of the day. She says they avoid foods like sugary fruit cocktails while focusing on healthier ingredients.

“The tricky thing is pleasing everyone. We do soups mainly and we’ll do things like stews and chilies. We also do mac n’ cheese and we sneak white beans in there to make it a little healthier. This year we’re able to add a lot of extra nutrients to the soups and add-ons. We also send bread always along with the soup but we’re also able to send some spreads. We made homemade hummus and homemade jams, honey so they have something to put on their bread. We also did muffins, banana bread and protein balls.”

Waters says more money would help expand the program to create foods that are appropriate for different cultures or different dietary restrictions.

Ahead of the break, the society handed out “Spring Break Bags” to help kids get through two weeks without school. They do it at Christmas as well, but Waters hopes they can expand that area of the program.

“When we hear kids come to school because there’s food in some cases, it breaks your heart because they go home on the weekend and what are they eating? What are they doing during the summer? We always worry about that.”

Advocacy group calls for funding

The B.C. chapter of the Coalition for Health School Food says it’s time Canada took action to address food insecurity in children.

“There was a 2017 UNICEF Report Card that came out that said Canada ranked 37th out of 41 high-income countries around providing access to nutritious food for children and we are the only G7 nation and one of the only industrialized nations without a national school food program that is, at least, partially funded and regulated by the federal government,” said Samantha Gambling, the coalition’s coordinator.

A stock image of an apple and a sandwich

The B.C. chapter of the Coalition for Health School Food is hoping the federal government will support more food programs in schools. (iStock image)

She hopes to see more funding in the Mar. 28 federal budget to address the issue.

“We’d like to see something similar to the childcare accords, some agreement with provinces and territories to expand their existing programs. Some models are built into the existing school curriculum. In other cases, you have caterers coming into the school’s providing meals. There are snacks, breakfast and lunch programs — they really vary across the province and across the country.”

Gambling says there are some programs currently in place but calls it “patchwork,” and says the need for help is only growing louder.

“Our ask equates to something like $5 a day per student, is a baseline for meal programs.”

In last month’s B.C. budget, the provincial government outlined $214 million to be spent over three years to expand the existing school food program and Gambling says that’s the largest single investment in school food in Canadian history. She’s happy with the money and calls it a good first step, but advocates feel more funding would be better.

“You don’t want to flood school districts with funding that they’re not ready to use, so we really want to make sure this is a phased approach to a sustainable program.”

Gambling wants people to know a school food program is not going to solve the hunger crisis, but a stopgap to help kids get through the day.

“We want to be quite clear, a school food program needs to complement other pots of funding and other programs and other strategies to address food insecurity.”

The provincial government tells CityNews details of how the $214 million will be spent will be released before the end of this month.

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