A long-standing school lunch program is in jeopardy, in large part because one of its major sponsors – who normally contributes $10,000 to the program – “is unable to contribute due to challenging economic times”.
But children identified by the Ministry of Education (MOE) as being in need of a lunch or snack program “will continue to be supported” whether or not the program continues as is.
Principal Tricia McKay said at the June 11 Parent’s Advisory Council (PAC) meeting at the Gabriola Elementary School (GES) that she was concerned that community members believe “vulnerable” school children will go hungry without the program. She said this is not the case.
Not just ‘vulnerable’ kids
Reading out a statement she had prepared for the meeting, McKay said Gabriola’s lunch program “is made possible through parent contributions and the kind generosity of several regular sponsors, charitable organisations, and monthly donations”. While other school lunch programs are usually funded by the government, and target “children recognised as being at risk”, she said the Gabriola program “strives to provide all children with the opportunity to access healthy food at school, and encourages healthy eating habits. It depends as much as possible on locally-grown produce”.
McKay said she had received a number of letters from community members concerned that Gabriola school children will go hungry if the lunch program does not continue. She said it would be great if the community agrees to support the program as is, but in good conscience, “I have to ensure that people who are handing over their hard-earned money … are doing so knowing that it is not because the children are starving, it’s because the parents would like to see (the lunch program) happening”. She said the program is “not a needs program (it) is a wants program”.
However meeting attendee Brenda Jager said “some parents would argue with you”. She said there are “working poor” parents who don’t fit the government criteria for poverty, “and nobody’s subsidising them”. Another meeting attendee said that as the economy deteriorates more children will need the program.
McKay said the decision about which children are in need is made by the MOE based “on a per-capita amount of children who are at risk of struggling in school as a result of poverty issues”. She said staff project there will be “under 20 … vulnerable” students attending GES next year.
Meeting attendee Marianne Mattes said she didn’t know why some thought that the program was only for needy children. She said there are some kids on the program “who are in desperate need of it, and some who don’t need it at all”, but that the program was really “about the nutrition … we don’t serve pizzas and things like that”. She said School Lunch Coordinator Carmen Mattes promotes healthy, environmentally-friendly eating. She said the point was that prices are low enough that all the students can be on the program.
McKay said the money collected from parents for the lunch program pays about $15,000 annually, or 35 per cent of the program. Asked how much money they would have to raise to pay for next year’s program, Carmen Mattes said up to $20,000, including the lost $10,000. She said the program costs about $40,000 annually.
Noting that lunches currently cost between nothing and $4 per lunch, based on ability to pay, Jager asked if they could raise the prices for those able to pay. Other meeting attendees thought that if they charged more, parents might not want to use the program anymore.
Mattes liked that the program “is affordable for families. Because I really feel that although we may not have what is considered poverty, our poverty line is very low. So there’s that middle group of people who – yes they’re bringing in money, and yes their kids are going to soccer and they’re doing sports – but the reality is that it’s still tough”.
Mattes added that the lunch program is a convenience for parents who work off-island. She hoped to “keep it a program that’s user-friendly for everybody, and if it means more fundraising and the community is willing to support that, I would like to see it go that way”.
McKay said Mattes does about 70 per cent of the fundraising for the program. PAC Chair Heather Anfossie said Mattes doesn’t get paid to fundraise and that a committee should be created to help her.
Jager said all that was necessary was that the community be told “this is just food for kids. All kids participate whether they can afford it or not. We like to keep it a little lower to subsidise the food rate (so that) whether you’re rich or poor you can get this subsidised rate”. She couldn’t see what the problem was and suggested the issue was “political”.
Anfossie said the issue was political because the nature of the lunch program “hasn’t been totally transparent for everybody”. “So we just fix it”, Jager replied. She moved that: if funding is available “… the program continue as in the past with clarity and transparency of communication to the public …”. Her resolution passed.
McKay said if the program can’t show stability it can’t continue, as the district would be unable to guarantee Mattes’ salary. Jager said over the years the program has had its ups and downs, but it still continues. “It is stable”, she said.
A motion to create a PAC subcommittee to help Mattes fundraise was also passed. Noting that “the school relies heavily on the funding provided by the PAC – support for classrooms, fieldtrips, (and) computers”, McKay said she would be sad if that disappeared in order to support the lunch program.
Anfossie clarified that the lunch subcommittee’s work would be “above and beyond” the other fundraising the PAC does.
McKay also said that the school district has been clear that all communication for the fundraising committee must be vetted by the school.
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