British Columbia

Schools and community groups scramble to feed students as pandemic leads to surge in demand

One principal from a school near Nakusp drives 90 minutes to deliver food hampers to students whose families are in need.

One B.C. school principal drives 90 minutes to deliver food to students whose families are in need

School staff help pack lunches for families and students in need at Edmonds Community School in Burnaby. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Schools and community groups across B.C. are coming up with creative solutions to help feed more students than ever because their families don't have enough food during the pandemic.

When schools were ordered to close at the end of March to minimize the spread of COVID-19, the Education Ministry asked schools to continue helping students who relied on food programs.

Staff at Burnaby's school district says they've seen a nearly 60 per cent increase in the number of students tapping into its hot lunch program even though they're not in class.

"It's very real," says Kevin Brandt, the director of instruction. "It's no secret that there is definitely more economic hardship happening right now as a result of the COVID situation."

Prior to the pandemic, the district served about 345 meals a day to students in need. That number has grown to about 600.

Brandt and his team were asked to develop a new hot lunch program for the district as soon as schools closed.

"We had a few late nights, lots of calls, and work on the weekends to pull this off," said Brandt about the week of spring break.

Now the cafeteria kitchen at Burnaby South Secondary is cranking out meals for 20 schools in the district.

Principal Sean Gaster of Edmonds Community School in Burnaby says many of the families at his school have lessons to share about resiliency. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The gym at Edmonds Community School, normally home to more than 300 elementary school children, is transformed every morning into a food packaging and delivery hub staffed by everyone from the crossing guard to educational assistants.

In addition to hot lunches, school principal Sean Gaster says about 70 families a week are receiving grocery hampers.

Families have told his team that food and financial security are their top concerns. Many of them are immigrants or refugees with an important lesson to share about resiliency, he says.

"Sometimes they're calming me down a little, [telling me], 'Sean we're going to be just fine, we have food needs, but we've been in this situation before,'" Gaster said.

The gym at Edmonds Elementary School is transformed every morning into an assembly line to create food packages. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Community support

Education Minister Rob Fleming says 16,000 families are currently receiving food services through the school system.

The Vancouver School Board says normally, approximately 3,000 students receive hot lunches. In the last month alone, the district has supplied over 27,000 meals.

A chunk of that work is being administered by community groups like Growing Chefs!

The non-profit normally works in classrooms teaching kids food security and how to cook, instead it's now hired about 10 chefs who were out of work and turned the Italian Cultural Centre into a free food hub for 260 Vancouver families.

Chef educator Selma van Halder of of Growing Chefs! prepares some of the 5,500 meals distributed to families in Vancouver every week. (Enzo Zanatta/CBC)

Chef educator Selma van Halder says the transition hasn't been too jarring since it's in a cook's nature to "change on the fly." And seeing the community reaction has made it worthwhile.

She said a mother who was picking a bag of meals last Tuesday thanked her for giving her the gift of time with her son. 

"It was just a really moving thing especially for someone who cooks for a living that ... you can provide that kind of assistance," says van Halder.

Volunteers and staff from Growing Chefs! and Vancouver's Italian Cultural Centre await families who are picking up food to help them during the pandemic. (Enzo Zanatta/CBC)

'It's worth it'

In more remote areas like the West Kootenays, administrators are facing the additional challenge of geographic distance.

The principal and teachers at Nakusp Secondary School have been driving 90 minutes each way to help bring food to families in need, says the district's superintendent Terry Taylor. 

She says 40 per cent of the kids in her district rely on school food programs regularly and the pandemic has "intensified" needs as their families struggle.

"It's worth it," Taylor said. "You know it's worth it because it's about kids and community and those are the things that you know as educators we hold most dear."

About the Author

Lien Yeung

@LienYeung

Lien Yeung hosts CBC Vancouver News Weekends. She has covered stories locally and nationally from Halifax to Victoria on television, radio and online. Find her on Instagram or Twitter @LienYeung or via email at lien.yeung@cbc.ca.

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