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The New Reality: Pandemic could change Nova Scotia’s school food programs

Click to play video 'Relying on school food programs uncertain for Nova Scotians during pandemic' Relying on school food programs uncertain for Nova Scotians during pandemic
WATCH: In the province with highest rates of child poverty in the country, families are uncertain whether school food programs can continue during the pandemic. Elizabeth McSheffrey has more.

This is the sixth in a series of stories looking at the new reality of life during the COVID-19 pandemic in the Maritimes. You can find the full series here.

As the provincial government considers options for schooling in the fall, school food advocates say it’s a good time to re-evaluate the delivery of breakfast, lunch and snack programs as well.

No decision has been made on whether elementary and high school students will return to in-person classes in September, raising questions about how thousands of children who rely on food programs will be able to access those critical meals safely.

“One thing we’ve been doing is salad bars and there’s a good chance we won’t be able to have kids serve themselves necessarily, so I know we’ll find ways to make that work,” said parent and school food advocate Jenny Osburn.

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READ MORE: Nova Scotia students, parents left wondering what September will bring

Osburn helped implement a pay-what-you can lunch program at the Berwick and District School in the Annapolis Valley. She also volunteered at her daughter’s school nearby, Somerset and District Elementary.

According to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, roughly 34 per cent of children in the Annapolis Valley live in poverty.

The provincial government funds school healthy eating and breakfast programs, but Osburn said those fall short of meeting the needs of students and rely too heavily on support from volunteers to deliver them.

The system shakeup created by the pandemic presents a unique opportunity to expand and build upon those initiatives, she said.

“We really think about how the need might increase in the fall,” she told Global News.

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“Right now is a really fantastic opportunity, I think, for when we go back to be able to meet the needs of those kids and care for them in this way, the same as we do at breakfast — but those kids are still hungry at lunchtime.”

Click to play video 'Students, parents left wondering what September will bring' Students, parents left wondering what September will bring
Students, parents left wondering what September will bring

In an emailed statement, Education Department spokesperson JoAnn Alberstat said school food programs “will be part of our overall considerations in re-opening schools,” all of which will be guided by public health requirements.

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“In addition, government has invested $1 million to support Feed Nova Scotia and its provincial network of approx. 140 food banks, and more than $55,000 to support community food banks outside the Feed Nova Scotia network,” she wrote.

READ MORE: Nova Scotia schools to stay closed for remainder of the academic year

Since classes ended early in March, Feed Nova Scotia said it’s been delivering meals to students who would normally get them at school through its annual After the Bell program. This year, it received more than 9,000 food packages for kids.

“I hope that we see the tremendous value that school nutrition programs have brought to kids be able to continue in the fall, and I guess that really will depend on how the community is able to work together to make that happen,” said Feed Nova Scotia’s Karen Theriault.

Click to play video 'Halifax teacher discusses how learning will change amid COVID-19 pandemic' Halifax teacher discusses how learning will change amid COVID-19 pandemic
Halifax teacher discusses how learning will change amid COVID-19 pandemic

Berwick-area teacher Tiffany Doherty said the positive impact of school food programs is undeniable — in her experience, well-fed children are more engaged in class and better able to regulate their emotions.

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She said many don’t realize the “disadvantage” that not having access to regular, healthy meals puts them in, and the pandemic is a chance to change the way school food programs are delivered — for the better.

“How are we going to provide students access to food stigma-free as well, so we don’t go back to the model of ‘Here’s your brown paper bag package that we’re delivering to certain people?'” she asked.

READ MORE: Dalhousie international students call for reduced tuition as coronavirus moves classes online

No communal eating spaces, pre-packaged cutlery, personal protective equipment — it’s unclear what school food programs will look like in four months, but regional centres for education say all options are being considered.

By email, the Halifax Regional Centre for Education said it will have a “much clearer understanding once there is a better sense of what school may look like in the fall,” and “any food supports that are provided will be in accordance with public health protocols.”

The Annapolis Valley Regional Centre for Education wrote, “We understand how important food security is to our school communities. We are having conversations about what the 2020-21 school year may look like for students and staff. “