December 15, 2012
‘Their stomachs need to be full’ In New Westminster, feeding kids is part of a ‘wraparound responsibility’ says the superintendent of schools #vansunkids
By Shelley Fralic
It starts early, at 7 a.m., well before the school bell rings. Car doors slam, and light chatter fills the cold morning air as they line up from the front doors of the school and down along the concourse outside the still-shuttered classrooms. They do this once a month, on a Wednesday, huddling in the damp of a new day, warm coffee cups in hands, breath hanging in the air.
They are the parents and caregivers of many of the 420 students who attend Lord Kelvin elementary school in New Westminster, and they arrive with the hope that they will land one of the coveted spots in the lunch program offered by the school district.
Like many such food programs throughout the public school system in Metro Vancouver, Kelvin’s isn’t just a social and nutritional touchstone for students, it’s also run on a shoestring, funded through a committed but patchworked array of business donations, community charities and school board budgets, which are increasingly facing financial shortfalls.
Kelvin’s lunch program, which has some parents paying what they can, costs close to $70,000 a year for staff, supplies and equipment, and accommodates about 80 students, half of whom are guaranteed a spot at the table while others are from that first-come, first-served lineup.
Every year, the program is funded to the tune of $58,000 by the Ministry of Education’s Community Links, which leaves a stressful shortfall of nearly $12,000. And, every week, several dozen parents, and thus their children, are turned away. Lining up? First-come, first-served? Turning hungry kids away? Shortfalls? Surely, in a country and a province as rich as ours, there is something wrong when hungry kids are left wanting.
The lucky ones who do land a spot at the lunch counter are grateful to have former professional pastry chef Michele Sand-with feeding them her fresh, healthful goodies that range from homemade chocolate chip banana bread and quesadillas to soup and grilled cheese sandwiches.
Kelvin school’s breakfast program is just as popular. It’s free to children who sign up every morning, and the two youth workers – Tara Worth and Lee Laufer – devote an hour every weekday rustling up a hearty breakfast that feeds anywhere from 40 to 50 students. Until this September, the $4,200 annual cost was funded largely by Breakfast for Learning, which itself is stretched thin and was unable to continue its support, leaving the school scrambling to fill yet another shortfall.
Here’s the rub. With consistent, increased funding, more staff and better facilities, these programs – and so many more like them all over the New Westminster district and, indeed, the entire Metro Vancouver region – would be able to serve far more students that they can accommodate.
With more funding and better stoves, with additional kitchen space and extra paid hours for the cooks, the truth is self-evident: there would be fewer hungry children heading into classrooms every day all over British Columbia.
The present-day Kelvin, one of nine elementary schools in the New West district with a total population 2,924 students, was built in 1963, and is a charming rambler of a school, fashioned in a one-storey open courtyard style that was once popular in California. Today, with the addition of a portable or two, it sits snug against Moody Park in an established neighbourhood of heritage houses and low-rise apartments, in what is essentially a small riverside town of 66,000.
But where Kelvin once registered classrooms full of mostly white, middle-class kids, kids who were well-fed and well-tended and who for the most part wanted for nothing, demographic shifts, including immigration and changing socio-economics, have changed that.
Now classified as an inner-city school, Kelvin requires additional financial resources beyond the norm for obligations such as ESL – there are 42 languages spoken in its classrooms – and special-needs children, as well as for the many children who come from financially strapped families.
Kelvin principal Daljeet Rama looks at her school’s tiny cramped kitchen, with its two overworked stoves and three fridges (two of which are in a separate storage room), and dreams about what could be if money wasn’t an issue.
“We could be feeding up to 120 students,” she says.
Worth is more specific: “If we had more time, we’d make things like scrambled eggs and french toast.”
Lack of funding for extra staff, along with outdated, cramped facilities, paint much the same picture at the two other New Westminster schools – John Robson elementary and Queensborough middle school – that offer a hot breakfast and lunch. (Other schools offer less formal food programs, serving cold food such as fruit, yogurt and granola bars to students.) At John Robson, just down the road from Kelvin, 40 of the 465 students are getting pancakes and other warm vittles prepared every morning by a single cook. Principal Karen Catherwood says her breakfast program costs about $3,000 a year and is funded by donation, but “year after year, it’s an issue” struggling to find that money.
And the demand isn’t going away.
Betina Ali, the district’s community program development officer, recently reviewed the nutrition needs of New Westminster students, and found that even with the support of volunteers and various community businesses and partners, such as Rotary Club and New West Firefighters Charitable Society, the need keeps growing.
That reality is echoed by New Westminster superintendent of schools John Woudzia, who has also seen the changes in his district over the years.
“The demographics have shifted and it’s becoming increasing difficult for families to live in the Vancouver area,” said Woudzia. “If we want to promote social and personal responsibility, we need to have the support for kids to have that foundation.”
If you’ve been following our Adopt-a-School series this past year, you’ll know that better nutrition has increasingly become the bedrock of that foundation. It’s often the number-one need that principals and teachers cite in our stories when it comes to improving the lives, and learning outcomes, of their students. It may seem counter-intuitive, but the evidence is undeniable that good nutrition is a fundamental part of a student’s ability to concentrate and excel, especially in the primary school years.
Laufer, who is an aboriginal youth worker in the district and who has been with Kelvin’s breakfast program from its start in 2002, makes no bones about it.
“Their stomachs need to be full. They need to have someplace to connect socially, to feel safe. And this does that.”
Adds Sandwith: “It tells those children that we see them, that we care about them.”
Woudzia refers to the district’s food programs as part of a community’s “wraparound responsibility,” and commends Adopt-a-School and Vancouver Sun readers for getting involved.
“It’s becoming increasing challenging for the boards, so we’re thrilled that you are paying attention. We don’t want to see any of our families or any child go without.”