'We need something today': Premier's rejection of breakfast programs doesn't acknowledge reality teacher says
Brian Pallister said parents sending kids to school hungry aren't 'fulfilling their responsibilities'
A Manitoba teacher who sees hunger in her classroom daily says comments from the premier rejecting universal breakfast programs don't reflect the realities facing educators in the province.
Sheena Rohne, who teaches Grade 4 in Vita, Man., said students ask her every day for something to eat. Sometimes they slip her notes, or try to catch her eye while their classmates eat a snack.
"It's heartbreaking.… I have kids of my own, and I can't imagine them having to ask somebody else to feed them," said Rohne.
"I'm relieved that these kids feel safe in our school, and they feel like they can come to us and ask for food when they're hungry.
"And I'm happy that we have something there for them to give them every day — whether a teacher's gone and paid for that themselves, or the breakfast program that we do have in our school is able to supply them something to eat."
Rohne says she was disheartened by comments from Premier Brian Pallister on Wednesday, when he rejected the idea of a free, universal breakfast program for Manitoba students.
"I don't think there is an understanding as to what we are dealing with every day in our classrooms as teachers, as the [education assistants] and administration," she said.
"I do understand that there is a larger issue of poverty. I can hear that, and I can understand that and I know that that needs to be dealt with.
"But I do believe that we need something today, we need something tomorrow, to feed the kids who are coming into our classrooms."
'Parents aren't fulfilling their responsibilities': premier
Responding to a call from NDP Leader Wab Kinew Wednesday to institute a universal breakfast program for K-12 students, the premier said it's not the role of government to feed students.
"If children are going to school hungry, then parents aren't fulfilling their responsibilities," he said.
Instead of feeding kids at school, Pallister said his government will tackle the reasons students come hungry, like parents struggling to make ends meet. He said feeding kids at school would have the "unintended consequence" of depriving children of family time at the table.
Keren Taylor-Hughes, CEO of Winnipeg Harvest, said feeding kids in the morning improves learning and behaviour in the classroom, and builds community in schools. She said while breakfast programs are costly for governments initially, they pay off in the long run by helping kids stay in school and succeed later in life.
"We know there are folks all across our province who are having trouble making ends meet, and a lot of those folks have families and children," she said.
Winnipeg Harvest offers a weekend snack program for kids at 45 schools in low-income areas. Taylor-Hughes said as food prices in Manitoba increase, she expects the need will grow, and Harvest has already gotten calls from schools asking about how to get involved.
'More than just the food'
The Manitoba Teachers' Society has advocated for a universal breakfast program in the past. On Thursday, president James Bedford said his group hasn't changed that position.
"Obviously, our recommendations are being read, and that's a very, very good thing. I just hope that it's translated into some action," he said.
"We're talking about the students in our public schools across the province. Quite literally we're talking about the future, and we want to ensure that every single student in our province has an equal opportunity to a great education."
In a written statement, the Child Nutrition Council of Manitoba said addressing hunger in schools has never been a partisan issue in the past, and "it is too important to become one."
Kate Comeau, a dietitian and spokesperson for Dietitians of Canada, said it's important to remember kids go to school hungry for different reasons — whether that's food insecurity in the household, rushed parents or refusing to eat breakfast.
"School food programs are more than just putting food into hungry bellies," she said. "They're a chance for the school community to eat together and learn important skills about food and nutrition, more than just the food itself."
For Rohne, the breakfast program offered at her school is an opportunity to spend time with the students and start each child's day off on the right foot. She wants the premier to know families face different challenges.
Low-income parents in her community, for instance, live 45 minutes from the nearest food bank. If they can't afford to put gas in the tank, the food bank isn't accessible. Time around the table as a family is great, she said, but it's not an option for parents who leave for work at 6 a.m. each day.
"I need him to know that not everybody has the same services accessible to them, and I need him to know that every family is different and every family has their own set of problems," she said.
"There's a daily issue going on in our classroom. And the talk of plans and dealing with poverty and the bigger issue is great … and it needs to be done. But we need something tomorrow, and we need to feed these kids every day."