Hungry and missing school: Schedule change at Gander schools exposes child hunger
Thousands of N.L. students chronically absent because they don't have lunch
Newfoundland and Labrador's child and youth advocate says more than 6,600 students miss at least 10 per cent of school days every year. One of the biggest reasons is they are going hungry and do not have enough food to bring for lunch.
Danette Hicks sees the problem first-hand.
"The Salvation Army Community and Family Services food bank provides food for between 450-500 individuals monthly, and many of those are children in food-insecure families," said Hicks, the church's housing support officer in Gander.
In November, she was in a school when she heard a student say another child was "lucky" because they were eating Halloween candy and chips for lunch that day.
Hicks became worried, so she checked with the school and was told the child often missed classes.
When the school put her in touch with the parents, she learned the absences were because the student didn't have enough to eat for lunch.
"What that looks like is they're going to school, potentially, with no lunch. I think it's much easier to recognize in the lower grades," she said.
"The older kids, if they don't have a lunch, it may look like just not wanting to pack a lunch, but that may not be the case."
Program started with one child
Hicks has three children herself, so she started making an extra lunch each day and dropping it off at the school for the child who didn't have one.
Then she started thinking there might be other students in the community with the same problem. So she called all four schools in Gander and asked if there were kids going hungry.
Now she has 30 students in all grades in what's become a new school lunch program.
Although she works with families in need every day, Hicks was still surprised by how many kids don't have enough to eat.
I think teachers and school staff were trying to meet the need as best they could. Giving the children their own lunches, bringing things from home.- Danette Hicks
"It did, to be truthful. Previously in our community, children were going home for lunch," she said. "So it wasn't something that would be recognized by the school personnel."
That changed last year when the children started staying at school for lunch for the first time. It was then, staff saw the problem themselves.
"I think the teachers and the school staff were trying to meet the need as best they could. Giving the children their own lunches, bringing things from home. Now that we recognize the need, we're certainly happy to develop this program to meet the need."
Volunteers doing their best
Right now the program has two volunteers who come in every school day to make what adds up to 150 lunches a week.
They have a menu to keep track of what the students receive each day. They ask the parents what their children prefer, to make sure the lunch is eaten.
Then they pack a custom-made sandwich, a piece of fruit, a juice box or bottle of water and snacks, which could be things like carrot sticks, yogurts or granola bars, to cover lunch and recess.
Hicks says some kids were unfamiliar with things like carrots or cucumber. They can be expensive to buy and the parents couldn't afford it, especially if much of their food comes from the food bank.
Some of them were used to having mainly Cheez Whiz sandwiches when they had lunch at all.
Under Hicks's program, the lunches are made by recess time and are dropped off at the school offices, where each bag is labelled with the student's name.
Students just go down to the office to pick them up, the same as any kid who forgets a lunch and has mom or dad drop it off. Hicks says it's important for the students to feel inconspicuous.
They also add little personal touches, like marshmallow santas at Christmas and valentines for February, and sometimes notes to make it fun, especially for the younger kids.
The biggest problem now is the cost. Hicks has already gone through her small budget and now the program is covered by the church's general funds.
That can't go on indefinitely because that money was already earmarked for other projects. So now she's looking for sponsors and donations to keep the lunch program afloat.
Solutions in other schools
On the Avalon Peninsula, the School Lunch Association provides food in 34 schools. They've moved into Clarenville this year, which marks the first year a school outside the Avalon Peninsula joined the program.
"We're really keen to employ people where we go, have kitchens where we go, create the food on site in schools and provide the best product possible. And so our goal is to be able to move out there," said Ken Hopkins, the association's executive director.
"If we were contacted by a school in Gander or another school in Clarenville or a school in Stephenville, we would absolutely investigate the possibility of getting into that school for the new year. Absolutely. And we would love it."
Under the association's program, families sign up for the plan, and agree to pay what they can. Payment is handled discretely so nobody knows who paid how much, even if it's nothing.
Every child in the program gets a serving of fruit, vegetables, a small treat and a hot main, such as sweet and sour meatballs or tacos with Mexican rice.
Food banks not suited for school lunch
Programs like the one in Gander fill a need, but they use a lot of local resources. And food banks aren't really an option to fill the gap.
Eg Walters runs the province's Community Food Sharing Association.
"Generally, the items that are donated to food banks are non-perishable items. Like tin beans, tin soups, tin stews, pasta, pasta sauce, Kraft Dinners. And certainly those things are difficult to pack in a lunch tin for a child for its lunch."