More than a meal: School breakfast programs vital in building community, helping kids succeed

School meal programs do more than fill empty bellies, says Winnipeg early childhood educator Robyn Brown. They help build community, and feeling of self-worth and belonging for the kids they feed.

Beyond filling stomachs, school meal programs foster 'feelings of self-worth and belonging,' educator says

Students enjoy a lunch meal at Hill Elementary School in Davison, Mich., in this 2014 file photo. Meal programs at schools are about much more than just filling bellies, says Winnipeg early childhood educator Robyn Brown. (Jake May/Flint Journal/Associated Press)

As adults, we sometimes say things we regret. We speak with good intentions, but our words are sometimes lost in the logistics of a lack of understanding or insight into the very issue we are debating.

After reading about Premier Brian Pallister's rejection of the idea of a universal breakfast program in our province's schools this week, I thought about the opportunity for growth and understanding beyond the chambers of our legislature.

And in particular, I thought about what it means to be hungry — and how the old adage that "food brings us together" can be refocused under a different lens.

I thought about this at 8 a.m., when I arrived at work the next day and started setting out chairs for the 40 children who were expected in our classroom in 30 minutes to eat with their classmates. 

And I thought about it five more times throughout the day as children and parents came into our school to utilize some form of the food assistance with which we are fortunate to connect them. 

What resonated with me was that at least five times during school hours, on any given day, I'm reminded of food insecurity.

So I came home, sat down at my keyboard and wrote "Hi! My name is Robyn, and I work in a school with a breakfast program."

No geographic barriers to hunger

Within 24 hours, my social media post, which outlined the realities of working in a Manitoba school with such a program, went viral. I received messages from fellow educators and early childhood educators who reported similar stories in their schools; messages of frustration from people who felt needs were being ignored, and reflections on the difference this may have made during their own school years. 

But what I really marvelled at was the unwavering majority of community members I heard from who echoed the same sentiment — that it's about so much more than food. 

Located in south Winnipeg, our school is a reminder that food insecurity does not care about geographic location. Needs spread throughout our city and flow into the rural areas beyond our perimeter.  

Parents want to share a meal with their children – of course they do! – but some days they're bearing the weight of work, school, unemployment, and health issues.

Approximately one in six children at the school I work at use our breakfast program each day, and even more use our twice-daily snack program. We offer what we can, using fresh ingredients donated by local businesses, groceries we're able to purchase from grants and our school division, and whatever we can assemble from our twice-monthly appointments at Winnipeg Harvest. 

Each day our staff make up healthy, belly-filling meals in an environment far different than what's portrayed in the movies. There's no cafeteria, no assembly line. Our children are greeted at the door and welcomed in as if they're a guest in our home. There's no stigma here, and we're glad they've come. 

'Parents don't choose hunger,' says Robyn Brown. 'But sometimes they have to choose between buying groceries and paying their hydro bill.' (gpointstudio/Shutterstock)

They're served by staff who work in the school and parents who volunteer as their way of giving back to a program their own children use. We eat family-style, we talk about our weekend plans, and sometimes we tackle tougher stuff.

Parents who can stay for a few precious moments before they have to venture off to work, do. We don't look like an "institution," but more like a large family gathering.

When breakfast is done, the hunger isn't over. We make up healthy snacks for children at morning and afternoon recess. We don't ask questions when a child comes in saying they need a lunch, because we know that sometimes it's the day before payday and their parent needs a break. 

We celebrate birthdays because we know that a special treat like that isn't always a given. We send food home. We do all of this every day, on top of everything else we're responsible to provide in school: literacy, numeracy, physical education and more. 

Building a sense of self-worth, belonging

Just as educators have responsibilities, so do parents, and feeding their children is just one of them. Parents don't choose hunger – of course they don't! – but sometimes they have to choose between buying groceries and paying their hydro bill. 

Parents want to share a meal with their children – of course they do! – but some days they're bearing the weight of work, school, unemployment, and health issues. They're caring for elderly family members and they're pushing strollers through unplowed sidewalks to catch the bus to EIA appointments. They're keeping doors closed to keep the heat in and hoping that the water is on to do the dishes in the sink. 

They're strong and resilient and doing their best, while hiding their own hunger from their children. They're sending their children to school all day and entrusting us to help them learn and grow into our future leaders, doctors, astronauts, teachers and politicians. 

It's my hope that one day, their children will become adults that won't reflect on their hunger, but instead recall the feelings of self-worth and belonging they had when they entered a program like ours. 

But they probably won't remember what they ate, because it's about so much more than food. 

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Robyn Brown is an early childhood educator, family centre co-ordinator and parent in Winnipeg.


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