January 22, 2013

Strathcona’s backpack program gets a $30,000 boost #vansunkidsfund

By Gerry Bellett

The uninitiated arriving at Strathcona Community Centre on Thursdays would wonder if they had entered the right building, the place being awash in food, knapsacks, and volunteers sorting and packing fruit and vegetables.

Community centres host a variety of programs, including those that make you sweat. But none – except here at 601 Keefer St. in the heart of the Downtown Eastside – provide a workout that involves moving a couple of tonnes of food up a flight of stairs.

It’s volunteers who bring the muscle and the sweat to haul the food from the basement where it’s received to the main floor where it’s packed and sorted and placed in backpacks to be distributed Friday afternoons: survival food to get 150 families through the weekend.

“The backpacks are all different sizes. We have one family with nine children so theirs is pretty big,” said Ron Suzuki, whose title of recreation director seems to miss something.

He runs 15 different food programs and a great portion of his time is spent figuring out how to feed the poorest in this poorest of communities.

On Friday, his step was a bit lighter. One day earlier, the Peterson Investment Group, a Vancouver-based real estate management and development company, had come in and promised him $30,000 to reduce some of his food-handling headaches.

For that he thanked The Vancouver Sun’s Adopt-a-School program for spreading the word on childhood hunger and the need to feed children arriving at school hungry or without proper shoes and clothing.

Program assistants Vuongmy (L) and Lorraine Holubowich prepare some of the thousands of pounds of food that they give out to families of children attending Strathcona Elementary School. (Jenelle Schneider/PNG)

“We run a breakfast program here for a couple of hundred kids each morning Monday to Friday and we also give them food in the afternoon. But what happens at the weekend?” asked Suzuki.

“How are we to make sure they are fed then? That’s why we started the backpack program. It started with 50 children identified by the school. Now we are up to 150 families and are feeding about 365 people. We are very grateful that the Sun’s stories has helped us get funding from Peterson Investment, who have come in and seen what we are doing.”

Jane Young, Peterson’s human resources director, said the company decided to make the donation after becoming aware of the needs of children in the Downtown Eastside.

She and a team from her office visited Strathcona Community Centre and met with the volunteers who were packaging food. “I never realized this sort of thing was happening in our community,” said Young. “I’ve read all the stories. These are innocent children who are hungry. I just hope this will raise some awareness in the corporate world for this program. I can’t say enough about what Ron is doing.”

During her visit she asked Suzuki what he most needed.

Suzuki said he needed to renovate the space he has for handling food, which would cost an estimated $60,000. (He said he is planning to apply for an Adopt-a-School grant to match the Peterson donation.) He wants to convert a downstairs room so he can pack and sort food there and eliminate the long haul upstairs.

He wants to install a walk-in cooler and refrigerator downstairs to store produce. This would allow him to cut down the time it takes to pack the food, allow him to distribute a greater number of backpacks and, more importantly, it would allow him to store food during the hot days of summer.

“We get the produce and food in on Thursday, but right now we have to have it all out of here by Saturday at the latest because we just can’t store it,” he said.

Each week he receives a donation of more than 3,000 pounds of fruit and vegetables from Fresh Direct, which is put into the backpacks along with staples such as cereal, canned salmon or tuna, granola bars, crackers and the basis of a major meal using pasta or rice along with cheese and dairy products.

The backpacks are picked up by parents of children attending Strathcona Elementary, which is attached to the community centre.

“They are too heavy for small children to carry,” he said.

Strathcona also supplies bags of food to Ray-Cam community centre and produce to a number of other organizations in the area who distribute food. Suzuki said the various food programs run from the centre cost about $100,000 a year.

Young said her company would also be providing volunteers to the community centre to sort and pack the food.

“Ron and his volunteers are the real heroes in all this, but we’ll come down and help them,” she said.

gbellett@vancouversun.com

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