January 21, 2013

Burnaby school tries to beat odds to feed kids #vansunkids

By Gerry Bellett

It doesn’t take long for Marilyn Kwok’s voice to falter when she describes just how hopeless it feels, wanting to feed 40 children breakfast with resources that can only manage to feed about five.

Simple arithmetic dictates that 35 must go hungry.

It’s mathematics colliding with compassion and it brings Kwok – principal of Burnaby’s Twelfth Avenue elementary – almost to tears.

“I don’t want to become emotional,” she said, “but it’s very hard when I’m giving out cheese sticks and I run out and there’s still children wanting something to eat.”

It’s just as hard as knowing each morning there are children who should be fed sitting hungry in class.

With her in the small principal’s office at the school on 12th Avenue, near Canada Way, is learning support teacher Angela Collins, whose face also reflects the distress of having to say no to a hungry child.

“It’s horrible,” said Collins. “It really is.”

That spoken and unspoken “No” has become a fact of life in the school – which has tried, and failed, to provide an emergency breakfast program.

“A year ago we knew we needed to do this but we didn’t have the money,” Kwok said.  “Then we received a $1,500 Breakfast for Learning grant.”

At that time teachers had stashes of granola bars they would give to hungry kids in the morning to get them through to lunchtime, when a hot lunch was provided – a contingency they’ve since returned to.

“Once we got the grant, we thought we could provide a hot breakfast and we ran out and bought stuff to make English muffins and scrambled eggs with some cheese,” Kwok said.

But they miscalculated the number of hungry children they would be feeding and were soon overwhelmed.

“We couldn’t keep it up. We were getting 40 kids a day and so we had to change the menu,” said Kwok.

To stretch the dollars, they switched from muffins to bread and added water to the eggs.

“We wanted to give oatmeal and fresh fruit but we couldn’t carry that on for long, either. We needed milk for their cereal but we didn’t have any and were having to take it from the hot lunch program,” said Collins.

(It’s not unusual for the hot lunch program to make a surplus, enabling teachers to pack up leftovers to send home with children whose families have no food.)

“We’d also buy the tetra juice packs the kids liked and they’d drink one and ask for a second and we had to importance. sit there and elements. say no,” said Collins. “So then we went out and bought the frozen stuff and we watered it make it last of a bit longer.”

Teachers had no kitchen equipment so they spent some of the money on an electric frying pan and a toaster oven, but they took the oven back.

We soon realized we needed all the money for food. It was a question of ‘Do you buy dishes or toaster ovens or food?'” said Collins.

It wasn’t long before the whole thing collapsed.

Teacher Angela Collins serving breakfast at Burnaby’s Twelfth Avenue elementary school. (Jason Payne/ PNG)

Recently the school got another $1,500 Breakfast for Learning grant. But rather than start a program that must collapse, the money is being doled out to feed a few. Even so, it won’t last the rest of the school year.

“We haven’t publicized it through the whole school because we couldn’t deal with the numbers,” Collins said.

But with little money or resources, Kwok and her staff do what they can to feed hungry children who arrive early each morning.

“We’re still cutting up the turkey bacon slices into three pieces to make them go farther,” said Collins.

On this day – shortly after school returned from the Christmas holiday – only five children showed up and a teacher had fed them eggs and toast.

“He had to bring in his own frying pan,” said Collins. “And the bread.”

On Monday of this week, there were three children looking for something to eat.

The previous Friday, about 20 unexpectedly arrived thanks to an early-morning basketball game, causing a big flurry as teachers scrambled to find enough to feed them.

Things are so dire that staff recently held a meeting, the results of which showed they are not too proud to beg on behalf of hungry kids.

“We have to get more food. We drew up a list of places like Costco and Safeway and the bakeries where we could go and ask if they can give us stuff they can’t sell or their leftover bread or produce,” Collins said.

(Just before Christmas, one teacher organized a clothing drive at a gym she attends, which resulted in 20 pairs of new boots, jackets and snow pants being sent home with needy children.) The school has also applied to The Vancouver Sun Children’s Fund for an Adopt-a-School grant of $10,000 to feed 40 or so children a complete breakfast until the end of the year.

It’s not just food – Kwok and company will need a larger fridge with a bigger freezer to replace the unit they now have, as well as plates, cups, utensils and equipment to stock the sparse kitchen.

None of the small appliances seems to be working. Their two toasters – one won’t eject bread, the other just quit that morning – have had it, and the electric frying pan’s given up.

But through it all, the children have never complained, said Kwok.

“They are very appreciative of what we are trying to do. They’ve even learned to like cream cheese on their toast when that’s all we can give them.”

A week ago, Kwok had occasion to ask one of the children whose family had received a Christmas hamper how he had enjoyed the holiday.

The hampers, put together in the school, contained mostly staples – pyjamas, canned food, a board game – and this little boy’s only Christmas gift was a set of Pac-Man cards found inside.

“He said he just loved his present, a set of Pac-Man cards – nothing fancy like an electronic game – just a set of playing cards. That was his Christmas.”



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