Students not getting enough to eat

Concentrating in the classroom can be difficult at times, but if a child is going to school hungry, it’s not made any easier.

The Vernon School District spends $106,401 annually to operate a meals program at four elementary schools: Alexis Park, Harwood, Mission Hill and Ellison, thanks to Community Links funding from the Ministry of Education.

Director of instruction Joe Rogers explained that these schools have been selected through review of vulnerability data such as community mapping, socio-economic demographics, counseling referrals and staff observations.

Rogers is one of several community partners who gathered recently to discuss the issues of hungry students in the district.

“Emphasis was placed on providing quality food for hungry students, not just filling empty stomachs,” he said.

A survey was sent to all district schools to find out how they are addressing the needs of hungry students. Responses were received from 13 elementary schools, five high schools and the alternate program.

Six elementary schools estimated that 10 to 50 per cent of their student population is food insecure and may come to school without adequate food due to lack of money, with the secondary schools estimating five to 30 per cent of their student population is food insecure.

“For many students we’re finding that they don’t have enough to eat or that the food they have is not good quality,” said board chairman Bill Turanski. “We estimate that between 800 and 1,000 students in this district are not getting enough to eat.”

Revenue generated through the donations to the Elementary Meals Program allows it to be extended beyond its targeted schedule to the end of May. Typically, the program has been extended to cover the first few weeks of June, based on donations.

Preparation of bagged lunches for the elementary program is contracted out to Venture Training Centre, which provides employment for developmentally challenged adults, many of whom are former district students. A dietician works with Venture staff to ensure that meals meet dietary and healthy food requirements.

Access is through family self-referral and staff referral and in the 2009-10 school year, the program supported 235 students.

“Some parents will give more so that more children can benefit from the program,” said Turanski. “This is something I never experienced when I was still in the school system — we had 450 kids and if we even had a handful in that school who were hungry, it was surprising. The situation now is so much worse because if you’re on social services, such a large portion goes to pay rent, that there’s not much left to feed your family.”

Turanski said the program is planning to coordinate with all of the agencies which support healthy food programs in the district.

“We know it’s going to get worse, food prices are going to rise dramatically,” he said. “We’ve been working on this for some time, but it’s become a crisis and we’re trying to coordinate with all partners.

“I don’t think the public really appreciates the situation that exists.”

District Parent Advisory Council president Nicole Makohoniuk said DPAC is in the middle of revitalizing its constitution.

“We believe it’s an important issue, and we are going to get involved,  she said.