When he sees how they eat — with that definable difference between healthy teenage appetite and stark hunger — it occurs to Steve Sorrenti that some of the kids in Sir Charles Tupper”s homework club might not have eaten in the previous 24 hours.
“It could be their only decent meal of the day. Who knows what they are getting at home?” says Sorrenti.
But the way the food gets devoured, his speculation is less a question than a conviction that the answer’s likely “not much, if anything.”
“When you look at the way some of these kids are eating you go ‘wow” why are they eating so much?”
Everybody in this little existential drama has a problem.
The kids’ problem is hunger.
Sorrenti’s is that he doesn’t have enough food to feed them.
And as for what he can give them being “decent” that’s really just an expression.
For what food he distributes — half a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a few pieces of fruit and vegetables — is far from being decent or adequate.
“We can’t even afford the good peanut butter, just the sugary crap,” says Sorrenti, a youth worker at the Vancouver secondary school on East 24th Ave.
“These are teenagers and they’d like a full sandwich but there’s times I can’t do that, I have to limit them to just a half. And I’d like to give them a full apple, too, instead of small slices.”
It’s the reason behind his application to The Vancouver Sun’s Adopt-A-School campaign for $3,600 so he can provide nutritious and healthy food to the 150 students a week who attend the homework club on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
“If we had the money I’d like to offer them fresh fruit and vegetables — a whole apple each. We need to give them something better than peanut butter and jelly. We want to give them meat and cheese, a proper sandwich.
“We’d like to get them humus, whole grain crackers and bread and things like halal meat because some of these kids have special dietary needs.”
Over the years the food for the homework club has come from a grant from the Parents Advisory Counsel but this is proving inadequate.
“We used to have about 90 kids a week but now we’re getting 150 and our food budget’s the same.”
Even just serving peanut butter and jelly sandwiches he’ll be out of money by the end of November.
And if that happens one of the homework club’s main attractions to students who need it will disappear.
“We know food is an incentive for a lot of students and we know there are a lot of students whose nutritional needs are not being met,” he said.
“We have new Canadian families and refugees who are vulnerable and then there’s the gentrification of the area which makes it harder and harder for families to live here.
“We see large families living in small accommodation and their food budgets are tight and not all families are making good food choices especially as fruit and vegetables are expensive,” he said.
“I guess a third of our students would fall into the category of living in difficult situations.”
Sorrenti said the homework club’s importance to the students and community is profound.
“For some kids, going home after school isn’t that appealing because they are living in cramped basement suites or they are having trouble at home.
“But here we can support them. They meet with caring adults who can suggest services to help that they might not know about.
“We have UBC and SFU tutors and peer tutors to help them. We are not teachers so it’s a casual environment and less intimidating for some of them,” he said.
It’s popularity is obvious given that 15 per cent of the school’s 1,000 students stay behind each week for an extra three hours of work.
“It’s amazing we have students staying here until 6 p.m. and we have to ask them to leave. There’s not many programs that draw these kinds of numbers,” he said.
“It’s definitely making huge changes especially in vulnerable students who didn’t have much confidence. Every year we hear stories of students’ lives being turned around and them getting employment or entering post secondary because we’ve developed those relationships since Grade 8.”
By Gerry Bellett (firstname.lastname@example.org)