December 12, 2012
Breakfasts in jeopardy without more funding #vansunkids
By Gerry Bellett
The pots are lined up early — peanut butter, jam down to the dregs, marmalade, cheese whiz, margarine and, lastly, cream cheese — choose any two.
There are small cups of milk, a plate of cheddar cheese slices, and some thinly cut apples — toast was coming.
All in all, the humblest of breakfasts.
Nevertheless, it gives a necessary energy boost to the 27 children who arrive hungry in the basement of Lord Selkirk elementary at 8:15 a.m. looking for their first meal of the day.
In a couple of months, however, they might be looking in vain as the donations that have put food in front of them for the past year will be exhausted.
“Sweetie, I’ll get you some juice,” says Vanessa Mani to a child she knows can’t drink milk.
This morning Mani — part of the school district’s inner city team — and kindergarten French-language teacher Mélissa Smith are running things in the small utility room where an average of 30 children a morning are fed.
“It’s a safe place for them to come and eat,” says Smith, who comes in early once a week to serve the children.
The story here is the same as in many of the city’s designated inner-city schools — if no one comes forward to feed these children they’ll sit in class hungry all morning with disastrous consequences for their ability to learn.
There’s no mandate for any school district in the province to supply breakfast for hungry children.
The dozen or so Vancouver schools that provide breakfast do so because principals and teachers have been driven to it by the state of children arriving in the morning.
Invariably a breakfast program begins with a compassionate staff buying the food themselves. Then, with luck, a community donor arrives and picks up the cost as inevitably, once breakfast is available the true scale of inner-city hunger becomes apparent and the numbers that need feeding will outstrip the resources of the staff.
Some fortunate schools, whose plight has attracted corporate benefactors or the attention of organizations such as the Vancouver and District Labour Council, have enjoyed a stable source of funding for years.
Those programs will likely have paid staff to run things — at the donor’s expense, of course — and are loosely supervised by the VSB’s food services division.
But Selkirk is an example of a program that operates under the VSB’s radar and staggers from hand to mouth — no paid staff — just teachers like Smith and Mani volunteering their time and principal Richard Zerbe cobbling together money from wherever to keep it going.
But after six years the juggling act is coming to an end.
“This is a labour of love for us. But we are going week-to-week and constantly looking for the next handout,” says Zerbe.
When the program started it was for just a couple of days each week, but a year ago Zerbe and the staff felt it had to be increased to five days.
(It’s notable this happened during the B.C. Teachers’ Federation job action when teachers were working to rule and refusing to do anything that smacked of volunteering. However, teachers at Selkirk could be found coming in early to serve breakfast.)
“We went to five days because we noticed kids needed it,” says Zerbe. “Some were obviously very hungry.”
A couple of years ago the school received a donation of over $2,000, from St. Philip’s Anglican Church in Dunbar, that would have kept a two-day program going for three years. But once it switched to five days, it began to burn up the donation.
“Without the church’s support and generosity we could never have gone to five days but sometime in the New Year we’re going to run out of money,” he says.
He’s down to $750 which will keep the jam toast coming until the end of February as — incredible as it seems, they manage to feed 30 kids a day, five days a week, on $250 a month.
Lord Selkirk’s 642 students are drawn from a mostly working-class and new-immigrant area in the region of Knight and Kingsway.
On top of needing money to keep serving breakfast, the school needs help to pay for field trips. And then there’s the 20 or so designated special-needs students who could find their route to learning greatly enhanced by access to iPads.
But it all takes money.
And in common with other inner-city schools there’s little hope of raising it from the school’s Parent Advisory Council.
“The school board has a policy that field trips must include kids whose parents can’t pay. So if we go on one we have to seek reimbursement from the board and it’s always questionable whether we’ll get it or not,” says Zerbe.
As for being able to buy iPads from school funds, that’s a pipe dream, he says.
“We do have a sizable number of special-needs students and teachers familiar enough with iPads to use them to help these kids,” says Zerbe.
“An iPad is little more than a toy for an average student and, in my opinion, they don’t need them to learn. But it’s totally different for special needs. iPads have been shown to be very productive for learning and engage these kids like nothing else can,” says Zerbe.
“That all said — what we need most is to keep our breakfast going.”