British Columbia

Pandemic is putting more children at risk of hunger, advocates warn

The Breakfast Club of Canada says one in three children will go to school on an empty stomach if the crisis continues.

Breakfast Club of Canada says 1 in 3 children will go to school on an empty stomach if crisis continues

Vancouver-based charity Backpack Buddies says there has been a sharp increase in demand for its services since the pandemic began. (Backpack Buddies/Facebook)

Carli has never provided what she calls a "flashy" life for her five children, but since the pandemic hit in March she and her husband have struggled to provide even basic necessities. 

"It was hard enough for them not being able to go to school and not being able to see their friends," said Carli, a resident of Port Coquitlam, B.C., whose last name CBC News has agreed to withhold. 

"The last thing that we needed was for them to also feel like they didn't have enough food."

The contract work that Carli and her husband usually provide for community organizations quickly dried up this spring, as did the income from their international humanitarian work. For help, they turned to local charity Backpack Buddies, a non-profit that provides food for school-aged children. 

"I was a bit nervous," Carli said. "We're used to being the people who help, not the people who receive."

Newly vulnerable families

Child advocates across the country say families like Carli's are becoming increasingly common as parents who were already living paycheque-to-paycheque lost jobs, fell ill or had to self-isolate because of COVID-19.

Emily-Anne King, vice-president and co-founder of Backpack Buddies, says demand for its services has nearly tripled compared to this time last year and she expects that need to keep growing.

"We're just seeing a tremendous amount of newly vulnerable families that were not in need of our program or programs like ours back in March," King said.

"I'm worried about children slipping through the cracks and not having what they need to learn and grow."

King says Backpack Buddies was originally founded to provide food for school-aged children over weekends, when school-based meal programs aren't available. But when in-person schooling was cancelled this spring, the organization began providing meals during the week as well. It continued to do so over the summer. 

Rising need

At this time last year, the organization partnered with schools and community organizations across the province to hand out packages with six meals to 1,300 children each week. 

Starting this week, it will increase that support by giving packages containing nine meals to more than 3,000 children. The organization is aiming to help 5,000 children a week by December.

One school in Surrey, B.C., went from asking for 15 packages of food every Friday to 300. 

King says British Columbia already had a poor track record of child poverty going into the pandemic, with one out of every five children suffering from food insecurity. She expects the pandemic to make that worse.

Vancouver's Union Gospel Mission says demand for its family food hamper program has increased five-fold since the program began.

"We've seen a notable marked increase in the number of people who are coming to us looking for help," said UGM spokesperson Jeremy Hunka. 

'Monster of child hunger'

The situation appears to be similar in other provinces as well.

Breakfast Club of Canada now provides breakfast to 250,000 schoolchildren across the country — 30,000 more meals than it provided at this time last year, and yet still short of current needs.

The organization is warning that one in three children will show up hungry for school this fall. 

"There is this monster of child hunger under the bed of these kids, and we don't stand for it," Neumer said. "And we truly believe that all Canadians should also not stand for this."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Maryse Zeidler

@MaryseZeidler

Maryse Zeidler is a reporter for CBC News in Vancouver, covering news from across British Columbia. You can reach her at maryse.zeidler@cbc.ca.

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