Edmontonians launch efforts to help students cut off from school food programs during pandemic
'If they were food insecure before, now it’s just magnified'
The vital role played by schools in keeping students fed in northeast Edmonton became even more evident to Sobeys Belmont owner Jerry MacLachlan last year when he was dropping off donations.
A portable toast cart was rolled into the classroom as the teacher called out "Who wants toast?"
"Every little hand went up," recalled MacLachlan, his voice cracking. "So now think about that in context to where we're at right now."
It's been more than a week since classes were cancelled to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
The closures abruptly shut down Alberta Education's school nutrition program that has provided more than 96,000 students with daily meals since the start of the 2017 school year.
The Alberta government has asked school authorities to find ways to continue the service. Larger school boards, like Edmonton Public Schools and Edmonton Catholic, say they hope to announce plans soon.
In the meantime, MacLachlan is one of many Albertans finding innovative ways to get food to students who relied on meals at school until last week.
"If they were food insecure before, now it's just magnified," said MacLachlan. "The children highly depend on those programs. To think that they went from having that toast every morning or having the snack that's in the teacher's desk … now the weight is totally [born] by the parents.
"You can just imagine the stress and probably the despair."
'Heroes Against Hunger'
Hours after being inspired Tuesday morning, MacLachlan launched the food drive, Heroes Against Hunger.
It draws on a countrywide Sobeys fund set up to help local communities. But the initiative was also inspired by a Toronto Star cartoon that shows two grocery store clerks with Batman, Wonder Woman and other superheroes and the slogan, "It's official. Grocery store workers are now in the club."
By Tuesday afternoon, MacLachlan's $1,000 pledge was matched by five Edmonton business owners and talks were underway with Edmonton Public School trustee Michelle Draper about how to get Sobeys gift cards to families experiencing food insecurity.
Heroes Against Hunger is also supported by the C5 North East Community Hub, which offers services and programs like community kitchens where residents cook together and practice their English.
Corinne Saad, C5's director, said families in the area experience significant food insecurity and depend heavily on the school nutritional programs. Before the hub was shut down during the COVID-19 pandemic, as many as 40 people showed up every day for lunch.
Saad painted a picture of the effort required by a typical client to get to the food bank.
"She's got to get a bus to get to the LRT, get on the LRT, get another bus, with her kids in tow and then have food on top of that to come back," she said.
"It's really a barrier for her to be able to get what she needs. With the hub being closed, we're really anxious to be able to ensure that we're connecting families to the food and nutrition that they need."
One useful resource helping them to do that is the Facebook page YEG Community Response to COVID19, with more than 10,000 members.
Those looking for help can fill out forms online to request food, diapers and other items for delivery.
The Facebook page is also a good resource for Edmontonians looking to support C5 and other initiatives, Saad added.
Food For Thought still operating
By modifying its operations, Food For Thought has managed to continue feeding 550 children daily from 15 Edmonton Public schools, said board member Kristine Kowalchuk.
Schools receive ingredients ordered from the Italian Centre through the grocery delivery service, Spud.ca. Teachers and principals pack it into hampers and food bags and drive it to students' homes across the city.
"We are continuing the service despite the school closures because we realize that the need is heightened right now," Kowalchuk said.
That innovation is also being seen in southern Alberta where school boards such as Prairie Rose School Division have found creative ways to get the food program up and running again.
Support staff are putting together meal packages funded by the province with the support of the food bank and donations from businesses.
The packages are then delivered by school bus drivers to the front steps of families.