“Recent research shows that many children who do not have enough to eat wind up with diminished capacity to understand and learn. Children don’t have to be starving for this to happen. Even mild undernutrition – the kind most common among poor people in America – can do it” – Carl Sagan.
Every school morning, Alice Sellers arrives at Eric Langton elementary at about 7:45 a.m., so she can get breakfast ready.
There will be 20 or 30 children there most days, and when she gets to the door, there are always some who have been waiting for her in the cold.
“I see these little munchkins, and they’re hungry.”
She makes the kids responsible for helping to prepare the food. Sellers says if they can dress themselves and put on their shoes, they can help get breakfast.
“I know their capacities. They’re responsible.”
One morning it will be cereal – six brands of cold cereal with milk. The next it might be bagel day, with seven varieties of cream cheese to choose from, served with a side of fruit – whatever type gets donated – and a glass of milk.
Some days she fries egg sandwiches and other days makes smoothies.
“They set it all up, and they serve each other,” said Sellars. “They’re challenged to constantly be thoughtful of others.
“School is so much more than just learning academics.”
The kids enjoy hanging out, and she said having breakfast together is equal parts satisfying hunger and social time.
“It’s almost like another family outside of these kids’ families.”
After breakfast, they play in the gymnasium until the bell rings.
Sellers is an education assistant and childcare worker.
She loves her job.
“I have the privilege of always being the good guy.”
There is a similar routine at lunch time at Eric Langton.
Across the Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows school district, other ‘good guys’ are preparing breakfasts and lunches for kids at school.
There is a big fundraising and volunteer effort directed at making sure kids are not sitting in class hungry. Service clubs like Rotary and Kiwanis, social service agencies, including Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows Community Services and the Salvation Army Ridge Meadows Ministries, and many school parent advisory committees are all helping out.
Schools apply for various grants available for meal programs, and local businesses donate money to the causes.
The district operates a School Food Providers Committee, which is focused on two key initiatives: the Bag Lunch Program at the elementary level, and a hot breakfast program at secondary schools.
Salvation Army executive director Darrell Pilgrim said his group has partnered with community services in the Haney Rotary Club Bag Lunch Program, which provides 186 lunches for children. The meals are delivered to 15 schools that do not have lunch programs.
The Salvation Army has been doing so for about five years, and Pilgrim said the cost is kept to $30,000 – which works out to less than a dollar per lunch.
The Sally Ann prepares the lunches, and community services identifies the need and delivers the bags.
Pilgrim said it started with a pilot program, just 30 lunches, at one school, where community services was working with families having trouble.
And it keeps growing.
“It’s unfortunate to realize there are that many kids going hungry,” said Pilgrim. “It’s not because their parents don’t care.”
“At the end of the day, we want to make sure no kid goes hungry. We want them to be able to succeed in life.”
Dennis Hemminger, of Youth Unlimited, oversees a breakfast program that feeds 600 high school students every week.
In started in 2009 at Westview secondary.
“The youth worker there had been feeding kids things like kimchi, frozen waffles and pizza pops daily,” said Hemminger. “I said ‘Why?’
He said ‘They can’t do school if they’re hungry.’”
That simple conclusion was also the point of a Conference Board of Canada study in 2013, which recommended a national meal program to alleviate hunger and poor nutrition in students.
The study found children are over-represented among Canadians suffering from food insecurity – where nutritious food is sometimes or always unavailable. The study found children without proper diets are less able to concentrate or perform well at school. Hunger makes it more difficult to learn, yet one in seven Canadian kids live in poverty, and are at risk of falling behind in school by Grade 3.
Youth Unlimited started offering breakfast at Westview, and has expanded to five high schools including the Connex alternate program. Pitt Meadows will be added as a sixth school in January.
On one day per week, and twice at MRSS, students get a hot breakfast, generally pancakes, fruit, juice and something they can take away like a granola bar.
At Garibaldi secondary, 200 students are served, and at Thomas Haney and Maple Ridge secondary about 150 each.
Hemminger believes it helps kids succeed in school.
“Youth workers, counsellors and teachers have all suggested that on breakfast day students are more attentive, they do better, and they’re on time.”
He believes that having the students break bread together – or pancakes and sausage – brings everyone closer.
“It’s good for the school,” he said.
Hemminger said the program has a budget of about $24,000 per year.
“And we have to fundraise for all of that,” he said, nothing that local churches have been the main support.
On breakfast days, he fills in wherever he’s needed, flipping pancakes or washing dishes.
“I love it,” he said. “I was born and raised here, I love Maple Ridge, and I want to give back.”
His goal is to expand the program to have a second breakfast each week in all schools, but more volunteers and more funds are needed.
Individual schools across the district run their own breakfast, lunch and snack programs according to needs.
The Meadowridge and Haney Rotary clubs, this past fall, started the Starfish Backpack Program, providing food for students to take home on weekends. Five schools are involved already, with more interested.
Mike Murray attended Christmas concerts at 12 different schools in his role as school board chair this holiday season. At each school, there were Christmas hamper efforts and boxes for donations of food.
“It’s an indication in our society, which is unfortunately, where we have so many families in need,” said Murray.
“The good part is in our community people care, and they pay attention.
“It’s a very caring community.”