‘It’s a right’: Vancouver Island school food charity sounds alarm about rising need

Click to play video: 'Classroom hunger and food insecurity growing as inflation climbs'
Classroom hunger and food insecurity growing as inflation climbs
Organizations that help feed kids in schools and families say they're experiencing a considerable surge in need as inflation climbs. Kylie Stanton reports – Sep 25, 2023

A Vancouver Island charity is sounding the alarm about food insecurity among B.C. children, noting that Canada is the only country in the G7 without a national school food program.

Nourish Cowichan, which launched in 2017, runs a school food program for 21 schools in the Cowichan Valley. It currently supports about 1,300 students, but said it expects that number to keep rising.

“The need has grown quite a bit. The biggest growth actually has been since the pandemic,” co-founder and chef Fatima Da Silva said as she prepared brown-bagged burritos in a large kitchen.

“Last year we saw a growth of 50 per cent from the year before and we’re already at 25 per cent growth from last year.”

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Nourish Cowichan has about 60 regular volunteers and gets much of its food supply from private donors, businesses, grants and the B.C. government. Stigma around food insecurity has challenged the program from the very beginning, she added, but a national food program would go a long way to address that.

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According to the B.C. government, about 30 per cent of children in the Cowichan area live in poverty. The 2022 B.C. Child Poverty Report Card further found one in eight kids lived in poverty in 2020, representing about 13.2 per cent of the province’s entire child population.

“We look at food sometimes as a privilege. It’s not a privilege, it’s a right,” Da Silva said, adding that she hopes to see a national school food program implemented within five years.

“If every child in the school is having a meal, if the food is accessible to every single child, then you’re not singling out children across every single school.”

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According to a 2020 survey of school food in B.C., almost 96 per cent of B.C. schools provide food or beverages or both for sale on their premises. Nine per cent of schools had no regular meal or snack program for students.

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Of those that did, 62.8 per cent offered breakfast, 63.7 per cent offered lunch and 88.4 per cent provided snacks. About half of schools receive funding from B.C.’s CommunityLINK pot, which supports school food programs. Some 45 per cent receive community food program funding and 41 per cent benefit from parent fundraising.

Twenty-four per cent of schools reported that school food grants are hard to find and 20 per cent said it took too long to apply for them.

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Da Silva, meanwhile, said some of the costs of the food Nourish Cowichan buys have “doubled” overnight.

Government funding will cover 60 per cent of the charity’s budget this year, she added, which jumped to more than $1 million for the first time in its five-year history.

Jo-Lynne Wikkerink, who runs a group home in the Cowichan Valley, currently feeds 11 kids daily. She said the Nourish Cowichan program has supported her through tough times, prompting her to volunteer.

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“I think once more people become aware of it, more people will be using it,” Wikkerink said.

“My personal grocery bill last month was $2,700 to feed the people in my home, so programs like this — having breakfast and lunch and some snacks covered — helps hugely.”

In March, the federal government completed its public consultation on a national school food program, with the goal of implementing such an initiative as part of its 2019 to 2024 Food Policy for Canada.

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