Bev Rodrigo is used to hauling backpacks. For five years, the Langley retiree and her husband Fred have delivered packs loaded with groceries to schools so families that need a little extra help have something to put on the table over the weekend.
Rodrigo doesn’t know the names of the students who receive the Starfish Packs , but it’s not unusual to get a card or a note back from a grateful parent. Once, Rodrigo says, a mom approached one of their volunteers offering to help carry the load.
“The mother told my volunteer she just wanted to say thank you. She had used the program and it had helped her family through a difficult time.”
The program is funded largely through community donations and the Langley United Church, and provides the backpacks containing non-perishable meals, snacks, fruit and cereal. In recent months, it has switched to a grocery gift card model due to health and safety restrictions on food handling.
Rodrigo, a retired nurse and pre-school teacher, knows that when families are struggling financially, kids go hungry. It’s a problem that is often invisible.
“People don’t realize this is happening because we just don’t see it,” said Rodrigo.
Canada is the only G7 country that doesn’t have a national school food program, something many advocates say would go a long way toward reducing food insecurity for families. Langley’s Starfish Pack program is just one of a patchwork of charitable endeavours throughout the province and the country aimed at reducing the number of kids who go hungry every day.
“Families and individuals in Canada are having a tougher time. The numbers experiencing food insecurity are rising,” said Jennifer Black, an associate professor of Food, Nutrition and Health at UBC and member of the Public Health and Urban Nutrition Research Group.
According to Statistics Canada and data collected by the Breakfast Club of Canada , the financial impact of the pandemic due to job losses and reduced work hours has resulted in one in seven Canadians living in a household where food insecurity, including going hungry because there is not enough money for food, is a problem, a 74-per-cent increase compared to the 2017-1818 Canadian Community Health Survey in which 8.8 per cent of Canadian households experienced food insecurity.
“More people are struggling, and we were already doing relatively poorly,” said Black.
According to Unicef’s report card , Canada ranks below many other affluent countries.
“We think of Canada being a generous country, but in terms of the services that would impact food insecurity directly, mainly school meal programs, we invest relatively little,” said Black.
According to the Unicef report and its Canadian companion , while 12 per cent of Canadian children experience food insecurity, placing it somewhere around the middle among industrialized nations, that average doesn’t highlight the disproportionate food insecurity for some children in low-income families, among homeless individuals, and in northern Indigenous communities.
In their 2019 federal budget , the federal government pledged to develop a national school food program as part of a new Food Policy for Canada, but the program hasn’t materialized and Canadians continue to rely on a mix of charitable and volunteer-driven organizations to provide meals to hungry kids.
While volunteers such as Bev and husband Fred are managing to keep the gift cards going for families in Aldergrove and Langley, there is something they would like even more: “We’d like to see a national lunch program,” said Rodrigo.
Benjamin Neumer, a senior adviser with the Breakfast Club of Canada, said COVID-19 has had a dramatic impact on hunger in the communities they serve. When schools were shut down in mid-March, clubs across Canada found new ways to deliver food to kids in their communities. The club set up food distribution in tents, in parking lots, churches, community centres and gymnasiums.
“During the pandemic, we fed 627,000 people,” said Neumer.
Although the mandate of the Breakfast Club is to feed children going hungry in schools, Neumer said it quickly became clear to those on the front lines that whole families were going hungry.
After schools re-opened, enrolment in the club’s programs across the country spiked by 30 per cent, said Neumer.
Although the Breakfast Club received a boost of $5 million from the federal government, without a national strategy, schools, communities and volunteers are left to manage on their own, and families in need rely on a patchwork of charity-driven solutions such as food banks.
“We have 30 or 40 years of evidence that the majority don’t use food banks, and the chief reason is lack of access and stigma,” said Black. “The underlying causes are complex social issues and intersecting basic health needs, marginalization. We feel really good about feeding people who are hungry, but giving us a hamper of canned gods is not going to address other needs such as lack of housing, daycare, chronic health needs, precarious work, unemployment.”
A growing body of scholarly research argues that charitable food distribution programs such as food banks takes pressure off governments to do something about these issues, said Black. According to PROOF , a Toronto-based Food Insecurity Policy Research group, “There is concern that these initiatives perpetuate the problem of household food insecurity and allow the government to abdicate responsibility.”
Sinikka Elliot, an associate professor at UBC in family, inequality and social policy, said that food banks and other charitable food sources without stable, predictable funding “are a bandaid measure that don’t get to the root of the problem. The pandemic has laid bare some of the ways we try to treat systemic problems with surface measures. It’s difficult to offer this labour-intensive food donation in a pandemic.”
Elliott said that although a national school lunch program isn’t something that addresses systemic social issues at the root of inequity and food insecurity, it could go a long way to mitigating hunger among children.
“If we were to have a national school lunch program here in Canada we could have a model that would be a shining example for many other nations.”
While conducting research in schools when the pandemic hit in March, Elliott said some schools with robust in-house lunch programs were able to pivot and continue to offer meals in the school community.
One district that turned around quickly to adapt to restrictions after the regional closures, and again after schools reopened, was Langley.
Susan Cairns, executive-director of the Langley School District Foundation, said there is a longstanding tradition of community generosity throughout the district — with funding coming through churches, the Rotary Club, businesses and individuals — that has kept kids and families fed before and after COVID-19.
“When the kids couldn’t come to school, we had to pivot and make sure all those kids that were receiving breakfast and lunches and backpacks would be okay.”
Twenty-three of their 47 schools have breakfast clubs supported by the Breakfast Club of Canada and the Langley School District Foundation, which fundraises for the programs from partners in the community, including The Vancouver Sun’s Adopt-A-School program.
Immediately after the pandemic shut-down in March, the district moved to grocery gift cards for families, providing support to approximately 700 families. Those gift cards are still going out to families and also to schools that have been able to organize “grab-and-go” meals for kids.
Health and safety protocols have all but eliminated hot meals, and volunteers are no longer allowed in most schools, but at Aldergrove Community Secondary, staff and students have jumped in to make sure no child goes hungry.
Aldergrove principal Jeremy Lyndon said after reopening in September, when volunteers were no longer allowed to come into the school, teachers and support staff who had long been involved in the school’s breakfast program stepped in. Prior to the pandemic, the program served 80 to 120 kids a day. Funding came from a variety of sources, including the Breakfast Club of Canada, in-kind donations, Adopt-A-School, and other community organizations.
When the lockdown hit, Lyndon said the community came together. “It was all hands on deck to make sure the supports were out there.”
“Because of COVID, we can’t have volunteers in the building anymore, so we have staff helping to prep and serve the breakfast in the morning — teachers and support staff, along with two students,” said Dianne Saumier, a resource teacher who coordinates the breakfast program.
The school had to move to a grab-and-go model because of pandemic health restrictions that prohibit gathering in groups — and that is where the program has changed. A stud y conducted in three Lower Mainland schools by Black and Elliot showed that school food programs are also about care. “When school food programs value and facilitate human connection, they can help improve children’s access to healthy food and nurture their sense of security and well-being .”
“Kids are getting fed, but what’s missing is the community and culture-building that goes with a breakfast club, the care component. A breakfast club isn’t just for kids who are needy, it’s for everybody sitting down and breaking bread. That’s what’s been lost,” said Lyndon.
That relationship of care is still there — it just looks different. The breakfast might come in a paper bag, the groups might be physically distanced, but the feeling of community goes on.
“We were up and running fairly quickly, we are aware of the needs of our students, we are making those connections,” said Saumier.
“This community does come together. We’ve got different guidelines right now because of the pandemic, but I really feel we are reaching out to students, and students are feeling like they can access food. We’re very fortunate to have teachers, staff and students who really are connecting and supporting one another.”