December 19, 2012

Adopt-a-School: Captain Cook in dire need of food #vansunkids

By Gerry Bellett

When principal Dan Knibbs surveys his students trooping into Captain James Cook Elementary each morning, he knows that of his enrolment of 343, 165 struggle with English and 35 struggle with various disabilities.

What he can’t put his finger on is how many are hungry. Even if he could, he can’t much about it.

Knibbs knows there are kids coming to school without a lunch who might not have had breakfast that morning and consequently have a day of hunger stretching ahead of them. And, studies show, hunger impedes learning.

If he were to guess how many come in hungry he would put it as high as 50, a substantial number by any reckoning.

“We don’t have a breakfast program here to feed them. We don’t even have a lunch program,” said Knibbs, who took over as principal of this inner city school in September after working in Strathcona Elementary, a Downtown Eastside school that has both hot breakfast and hot lunch programs.

The Vancouver school board has promised to get him a lunch program, but nothing’s materialized yet. The lack of a proper kitchen and a large freezer-fridge at Cook isn’t helping.

Inner city school worker Pauline Holder checks out the empty fridge in the kitchen at Captain James Cook Elementary. The school needs an overhauled kitchen and money to provide a breakfast program. (Gerry Kahrmann, PNG)

When it comes to dealing with hungry children in Vancouver’s inner city schools there are wide disparities.

Some schools have programs with sponsors and paid staff dispensing a varied and nourishing breakfast; others stumble along, with teachers making do with donated bread and money from their own pockets to provide a basic something.

Then there are the likes of Cook, where teachers squirrel away food in corners of classrooms to be produced when hunger arrives in front of them.

“At first glance, this school doesn’t look like it’s in an area where there would be hungry kids and poor families,” said Knibbs, pointing out the million-dollar townhomes bordering the school on East 54th not far from Champlain Heights and Boundary Road.

“But we have 80 families living in B.C. Housing complexes and others living in basement suites and we’re seeing anywhere from 20 to 50 kids a day that come to school and don’t have lunch with them. So there’s a good chance they are not … having breakfast, either.

“We have rudimentary stuff to help them, granola bars and instant cereal — anything really quick — because we just don’t have the facilities to prepare anything beyond that,” he said.

The kitchen is a cramped space at the back of a utility room — a four-burner stove, an apartment-sized fridge, a sink, some old wooden cupboards, but no dishwasher nor much of anything else.

Knibbs and inner city project teacher Lorinda Coulter want to launch a breakfast program of some kind, any kind.

They’d do it just for the sake of feeding hungry kids. But Knibbs has a secondary motive. He believes the prospect of a proper breakfast would attract some children to school whose lack of attendance so far this year is chronic.

“We have a serious problem with absenteeism. Quite a few of our kids are habitually late. Between 20 to 50 kids are late greater than five days a month,” said Knibbs.

“I’ve sent notes home about it, but it’s not having much of an effect. One mom who’s got a new baby tells me she’s so tired in the morning she can’t get her child to school on time. We have one student who has been absent for 30 days since September — school’s only been in for 65 days. I’ve got six kids right now that have a chronic absenteeism problem.

“If we could give them breakfast, I think we’d get them to come in. The prospect of getting something to eat would be a big draw and we could put together a reading program with breakfast so we’d also need books, a sort of rolling library,” said Knibbs.

“At least that’s what we’d do if we had the money.”

He has the support of teachers who have committed to volunteering their time in the morning for breakfast, but the school needs a new kitchen — at the very least a dishwasher to go with the promised fridge — some pots, pans, griddles, toasters and enough cups and tableware to set before 50 children.

Not to mention a source of money to get it going.

“We’d need a commitment on funding for an extended time. We wouldn’t want to set up expectations and have it vanish after a year. So that’s our challenge,” said Knibbs.

With a proper kitchen and some funding, he would also be able to provide snacks for Cook’s after-school programs.

“We have some quite vulnerable kids attending here. We’re part of the South Vancouver Neighbourhood House program and we have a homework club that operates out of here and Big Brothers come in to help these kids.”

Knibbs is planning to visit some supermarkets and other stores in the area to seek help with food.

“Some of these stores should be able to help us out. What we are doing now is just a Band-Aid,” he said.

In September, he had $300 in the budget for emergency food vouchers and it’s long gone.

“We get parents coming in looking for help to buy food and we’ve got to be creative and find money from wherever we can.

He’s concerned with what he and other staff will be faced with come January.

“Some parents will have spent all the money they have to give their kids a Christmas but when the bills come in January and after the kids have been out of school for two weeks, it’s going to be tough.

“I can’t say I’m looking forward to it.”

 gbellett@vancouversun.com

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