A small notice taped to the counter near the checkout in Mouat’s hardware store in Ganges showed Gulf Island schools are no more immune to the evils of childhood hunger than those in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
This might be a shock to travellers who pass by these beautiful islands, where the shorelines are lined with expensive homes and cottages, as esthetically removed from Main and Hastings as it’s possible to get.
But the words next to the till prove appearances are deceptive. The paper says the Salt Spring Lions Club donated $4,000 last year to a number of schools to feed hungry children – “and the need is getting worse every year.”
How bad is it getting? According to the notice, children took it upon themselves to feed other children.
“Each school has children that just don’t get food for lunch at all and a lot of times it is other kids that give them parts of their own lunches to keep them from going hungry,” it says.
The schools would like the option of giving these hungry children yogurt or fruit or hot meals – something more substantial than dried noodle soups – but the money isn’t there. Hence the appeal for donations.
Gayle LeBlanc, the Lions’ office manager, is responsible for the club’s campaign to feed schoolchildren.
“We have all walks of life living here, the very rich but some very poor,” LeBlanc said. “And a lot of kids end up at school with nothing to eat.”
However, $4,000 doesn’t go far across nine schools. Even with donations from CUPE workers, the PACs and others, the schools run out of money well before the end of the school year.
“By the end, they are down to just juice boxes,” LeBlanc said.
Maggie Allison, a counsellor at Gulf Islands Secondary, said schools began noticing the issue of student hunger six years ago during the economic downturn.
“Kids were coming to school without breakfast. There was no prospect (of them paying) for lunch. Getting dinner – no prospect either,” Allison said.
There are about 20 children a day who come in hungry and are given a hot lunch.
“Dinner is still a black hole,” Allison said, so some children might only get a meal a day.
“Every single day, we see students where there’s no food at home, so you just can’t give them a granola bar and a yogurt – that’s like putting a Band-Aid on a gaping wound.”
Allison is also part of a healthcare assistance team working with women struggling with poverty.
“I say, ‘You have to spend at least $100 a week on food,’ and they look at me and say, ‘We can’t.’ Even those with children can only spend $60,” she said.
“I’m amazed at some of the places they are living. Some are in trailers and don’t have control of the heat or the rodents. … There are many factors which contribute to this. We don’t have any industry, we are primarily a tourism-driven community, and it’s difficult for people to access well-paying jobs,” she said.
Making things worse, housing rental services like Airbnb have driven up prices, forcing some poorer renters out.
“People who were renting out rooms and places for folks to live have turned them into Airbnb. So now we have a severe lack of affordable housing,” she said.
By Gerry Bellett (firstname.lastname@example.org)