Grade 1 student Sidney Shapiro doesn’t like the stew that’s sometimes served by his school’s hot lunch program, but that’s his only complaint. His dad, Marc Shapiro, gladly pays the $65 a month it costs for the daily meal program at Lord Strathcona Elementary School. For a working family, it’s convenient, he told the Georgia Straight in a phone conversation. And nutritionally, he said, it often beats a brown-bagger from home.
The Shapiros are some of the lucky ones. Not only is a hot lunch program available at Strathcona—this isn’t the case at most B.C. schools—if the program didn’t exist, the parents would still be able to feed their kid.
“I’m well aware that a lot of families don’t pay at all and still use the service,” Marc Shapiro said. “We’re happy to pay the full amount and subsidize it.” (At schools with the hot lunch program, an empty envelope is sent home to parents each month; they pay what they feel they can. The recommended $65 covers the cost of feeding a child. Kids whose parents can’t pay still get fed.)
Internationally, school food is a hot topic. Since 2005, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver has been shaming the poor nutrition often found in school lunch programs in the U.S. and the U.K. on his show Jamie’s School Dinners. While the gruel in these schools is often grim, Canadians can’t boast about any national school food program—grim or otherwise. Instead, Canuck programs, when delivered at all, are cobbled together with a mishmash of scant provincial funding and private donations.
Now, some advocates are saying it’s time to offer food comprehensively in B.C. schools.
Nutrition crusader Lisa Werring, for example, notes that about a third of elementary-school kids in Canada don’t eat a daily breakfast. That jarring statistic is from a 2010 study by Breakfast for Learning, a national nonprofit organization that raises funds for school breakfast programs. (It gave out $131,675 in B.C. in 2009.) The group’s view is that hungry kids can’t learn.
“Poverty is the biggest part of it,” Werring, the Breakfast for Learning coordinator for B.C., told the Straight in a phone interview from White Rock. She said she hopes the federal government will take over school food programs to mandate consistency and universality—and put her organization out of business.
“But also, when you have two parents working, Mom and Dad may already be at work [before the kids leave for school]. So if there isn’t something organized, they’ll [the kids will] just dash out the door to school. There are a lot of factors. In the end, it doesn’t matter why kids are showing up to school hungry. They just are.”
In B.C., the Ministry of Education’s CommunityLINK program, which funds some hot lunch programs, targets low-income areas. In Vancouver, for example, 27 schools have a provincially funded meal program, out of 109 in total. The ministry indicates which schools should get programs based on the Social Services Index—a formula that considers the number of kids in ministry care and the number of students identified by administrators as “vulnerable”.
Strathcona, for example, is the district’s most vulnerable school, according to the 2009 Vancouver Board of Education Inner City Schools Project Review. But these numbers only tell part of the story. The Shapiros, for example, are a middle-class family living in a low-income neighbourhood. The reverse is also common.
For example, one in seven families, or about 14 percent, living on Vancouver’s West Side are poor—in an area where the average after-tax family income is a whopping $107,430—according to Vancouver Coastal Health. (In the Downtown Eastside, by comparison, 22 percent live in poverty.) Yet few West Side schools qualify for CommunityLINK funding.
As poverty pockets spread across the city, so should school food programs. That’s according to Noel Herron, a retired Vancouver elementary-school principal. He was one of the early proponents of school breakfasts and lunches, and was instrumental in starting what is now the Inner City Schools Program—the first food program in the region.
Herron is incensed that, instead of building on the pro-food, antipoverty momentum started in the 1970s by his peers, he feels commitment is backsliding.
“It’s become nobody’s baby,” he told the Straight in an interview at his False Creek condo, noting that provincial funding of the program has bounced between provincial ministries. Plus, he said, to help bridge the Vancouver School Board’s $18.1 million deficit in 2010–11, the start of the food program has been delayed at five schools newly added to Vancouver’s inner-city list: Bruce, Beaconsfield, Waverley, Franklin, and Mackenzie.
Apart from identifiably impoverished neighbourhoods, Herron said, poverty is often hidden in posh schools. Echoing Werring, he says he’s also aware that busy-but-comfortable parents can “unintentionally neglect” their kids in the morning, leading to hungry students come lunchtime.
Herron claims that the province could easily afford a universal school breakfast and lunch program, if political vanity spending were curtailed.
In fact, in terms of educational outcomes, food in schools is one of the best things to spend money on. That’s according to Susan Lambert, president of the B.C. Teachers’ Federation. The province should have postponed the rollout of full-day kindergarten (which began in 2010), she told the Straight in a phone interview. They should cut StrongStart B.C. early-learning programs—another Liberal project. Instead, she said, the money should be used to provide a breakfast-and-lunch program to all kids who need it.
“The federation, for how many years, has talked about how hungry kids can’t learn,” Lambert said. “It’s fallen on deaf ears for a long time.”¦The federation is in support of all-day K. But in my view, instead of making a commitment to it, that money should have been channelled into areas where kids are going without.”
Perhaps a new TV program could help transform B.C.: Jamie Oliver’s Underfed Students.