November 25, 2013

Coquitlam’s Ecole Maillard needs help with breakfast, lunch and after-school food #vansunkidsfund

By Gerry Bellett

In May Coquitlam’s Ecole Maillard Middle School took a run at feeding its hungry children.

“We realized we needed to,” said vice principal Kathryn Jung whose school tops the vulnerably index in the Coquitlam school district with 10 per cent of its 409 students being deemed vulnerable as a consequence of poverty.

“Our focus last year was meeting the needs of these vulnerable children. We soon realized we weren’t going to meet their needs if we didn’t feed them,” she said.

Ambitious and noble, but Jung would find it easier said than done.

Nevertheless, it all started well.

The school at the time had two youth workers and a school coordinator for its after-school programs who were able to pitch in and prepare food and this, coupled with a grant from the Breakfast Club of Canada, got them going with breakfast.

But there was no money to provide lunch (the school does not have a free-lunch program like comparable inner-city schools in Vancouver) or after-school snacks. And the numbers of children coming to school without breakfast, no lunch in their backpacks or as much as a snack to see them through the day, quickly overwhelmed the school’s resources.

“There were times we put out messages saying if anyone had food in their fridge they didn’t need, to please bring it in,” said Jung.

That’s how affairs ended in June.

This school year matters are worse.

“Our needs are higher this year, and I’m not just talking about the children, it’s their parents and families,” said Jung.

The school has now lost the services of one youth worker and the school coordinator through budget cutbacks. So the whole weight of providing and preparing breakfast, lunch and after-school snacks falls on the shoulders of surviving youth worker, Karen Exley.

“Wednesday’s are the worst,” said Exley.

“I’m in there making and serving breakfast between 8 and 8:55 a.m. and sometimes there’s 60, 70, or 100 kids and I’m trying to stop them doing all the things they ought not to be doing and so far they haven’t figured out there’s no supervision.

“But when they do I’m in trouble,” she said.

Exley admitted there isn’t enough money to keep on going without “stealing it from other programs.”

“We have to feed these kids, there’s no way around it. We don’t have the money but there’s no way we can say they will have to go hungry,” she said.

So the school is asking for $20,000 from The Vancouver Sun’s Adopt-A-School campaign in order to provide meals throughout the day for those children who show up without food — a number of whom arrive holding hands of younger brothers or sisters. These siblings attend nearby Rochester Elementary, which does not have an emergency breakfast program.

Exley is hoping to have a scheme in place to feed breakfast to Rochester’s hungry children by spring break, and have a walking school bus organized to get them to their own school on time.

And it’s not just money for food, the school needs to equip a kitchen, at a cost of almost $8,000, with a commercial-grade dishwasher, a freezer, microwave, shelves, fry pans, food storage bins, plates, bowls, utensils and all the other necessary paraphernalia.

As much as it needs money and equipment, the school also needs volunteers.

“We would love it if a local company came in to help us,” Exley said.

The previous morning she had learned that a wholesaler in Vancouver had an abundance of bananas and was selling them cheap.

“I asked one of our parents to go down and buy what we could and we spent the afternoon freezing them,” she said.

The bananas will be used in the smoothies that form the basis of breakfast here.

“Because we’ve got a blender we do a lot of smoothies, and I use Greek yogurt, kale, frozen fruit and milk and the fruit juice we get and some oatmeal. Sometimes we will have that with toast. Grilled cheese is a big hit but eggs are not as popular with the kids as you might think,” said Exley.

Inevitably, there are kids getting fed in the mornings that don’t necessarily need it.

“I’m OK with that because then we’re not stigmatizing the kids who really do (need it) and, in any case, it’s only a few. But lunch is a different situation. It’s totally needs-based and our lunches are pretty boring — whole grain bread (donated by Cobs) with ham and cheese and mayo, or peanut butter and jam and a bit of fruit.

“And it remains the same from September to June.”

Exley uses after-school programs to teach students how to cook.

“We have a child whose mother works nights in a 7-11 and isn’t there from 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. and she has to look after her younger siblings. We are trying to teach her how to make basic stuff at home. It’s a real necessity,” she said.

The school is located in Maillardville, one of Coquitlam’s older, established neighbourhoods.

“We have kids who are as vulnerable as you will find in the Downtown Eastside, and we have others at the top of the socio-economic scale, so we’re a real mixed group,” said Exley.

“Most of our vulnerable kids have problems. They have to deal with poverty, they might have a parent with mental health or substance abuse issues, they might have mental health problems themselves. Some of them are looking after younger kids and some situations are real nightmares.

“It’s not just the people on income assistance who are struggling the most, it’s the families who aren’t on it. That lady working nights, her income’s sporadic as she works on call, but she’s trying her best and so we’re feeding her child breakfast, lunch and afternoon snacks.

“I had thought this stuff got fixed. After all we’re Canada aren’t we? Don’t we take care of our poor people?”



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