Lord Strathcona principal on his school’s children needing nourishment as ‘a prerequisite to learning’ and its ‘freeway out of poverty’
Jason Eng, principal of Lord Strathcona elementary school in the heart of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, is a self-confessed foodie.
“I’m really into food and cooking,” he admits, resetting a baseball cap that’s unable to restrain all the strands of black hair that curl out from under it.
But it’s not the delights of eating or of fashioning a meal that occupies the mind of this singular principal — dressed in a T-shirt and ball cap as befits the neighbourhood — it’s the constant worry that while he’s well fed there’s hunger and malnutrition in scores of children entering his school each morning.
“We’re probably serving 250 to 300 hot lunches and we know that for a lot of these kids that’s their last meal until breakfast (in school) the next day,” he said.
Then there’s the concern for how they will fare on weekends when school’s out and during spring, Christmas and summer holidays when schools are closed.
“So we have a system to help support our families with groceries and grocery gift cards. We have a food pantry and we give out food hampers multiple times during the year,” he said.
“At one time the hot spots for this were during school breaks, but now it’s chronic throughout the year.”
It’s into December and he’s concerned how he will put together enough food hampers to feed 180 families over the Christmas break.
“It’s survival food,” he admitted. “The families don’t have enough money to feed themselves.”
Most of the money he gets to provide this emergency food comes from the Vancouver Sun Children’s Fund and its Adopt-A-School campaign.
This year Eng is asking for $20,000 so he can dispense food, clothing and other necessities to impoverished families crippled by inflation and high food costs. The school also needs $35,000 from AAS to help feed breakfast each day to 250 children, or 100 more than were fed last year.
The Downtown Eastside is generally accepted as the poorest area in Canada. Eng, who has been a principal in this area for 11 years, feels it might well be the poorest in North America.
“When people from other places come here they are appalled,” he said of the homeless encampments and tents lining Hastings Street.
“We have families living in subsidized government housing on Hastings who are climbing over those tents to get to school,” he said.
“There are homeless people in them, transient people, people with mental health issues, many of them vulnerable with trauma backgrounds and (the encampments) are spreading closer and closer to the school.
“That’s the community our children are living in and it’s as bad as I’ve ever seen it. And what’s worse, many of our students have family members living out there.”
If the aesthetics of the neighbourhood have never been as awful, neither has the struggle by families to find enough food.
“One thing we have noticed since the end of COVID is that a lot of the outside organizations and agencies that our families used for food support have dried up, or, the quality of food they are getting is atrocious,” Eng said.
“I’ve heard of people lining up at the food bank for hours so they can get a loaf of moldy bread, a bag of onions and half a dozen eggs.”
Asked what the worst part of all this was, Eng said he’s not a social worker but seeing the effects of poverty spilling over into his school with malnutrition and hunger “being a big part of it” was the most disturbing.
“I’ve been in situations where I’ve been in people’s homes and it’s inhumane that they have to live in those circumstances. Poverty, food insecurity, lack of trust in (social) institutions, systemic racism, prejudice, all these things are barriers preventing these families from moving ahead,” he said.
“Luckily, we have education and that’s a way to stop this cycle of poverty.”
But the key to making sure children take advantage of an education is to have them fed.
“They need nourishment. It’s a prerequisite to learning. If those children aren’t properly fed they can’t learn,” Eng said.
“I’ve seen it in so many ways. Kids struggling with their behaviour and emotional issues … if they are fed and not starving they calm down and become focused on school and learn.
“Education is the freeway out of poverty. If we don’t take this younger generation and empower them through education they’ll continue down the same path as their parents and so there’ll just be another generation living in poverty and this environment.”
By Gerry Bellett (email@example.com)