Being hungry is a terrible recipe for learning
The tipping point came two years ago when the number of hungry students arriving at King George secondary, deep in the heart of Vancouver’s West End, could no longer be ignored.
The school on Barclay Street, not far from Stanley Park, sits in the most-crowded urban landscape in B.C. in the shadows of surrounding highrise apartments.
“It was midway through the year before last (2021) that we started feeding them breakfast,” said principal Tyler Evans.
The school had to because of the growing number of children coming in hungry each morning, he said.
The breakfast program was put together by the community school coordinator Vive Wong and Siobhan Powlowski from the nearby Gordon Neighbourhood House whose staff cook and serve breakfast.
The money to start the program came from a pilot project funded by the United Way during the COVID pandemic.
“Funding was only ever meant as a temporary measure and we were expected to move to other sources,” said Powlowski. “But it’s been a great success.”
The effort to feed youth and children in this part of the city began after a study two years ago showed that roughly half of them lived in poverty. “We were pretty struck by that data, and it was confirmed by the school. But we didn’t have the resources to put a food program in place until we received that grant.”
King George is the smallest secondary school in Vancouver with just 640 students but 50 students rely on the school breakfast daily and 88 need to be fed lunch.
“We’re a vulnerable school,” said Evans. “The financial condition of some families here is getting worse and they are finding it harder to feed their children.
“With inflation and the rising cost of food and accommodation anyone making less than $25 an hour is struggling,” he said.
The school district provides money for lunches, but to keep the breakfast program going The Vancouver Sun’s Adopt-A-School campaign is being asked for $32,000.
“The kids that need feeding are coming in with varying degrees of hunger. About half of them would be living with significant financial distress — living hand to mouth — their parents not knowing where the next month’s rent is coming from. So we have to subsidize their course fees and any extracurricular activities they might have,” Evans said.
“It’s important we have breakfast for them because then they are coming in here and going to class compared to ‘I’m hungry. I’ll just stay in bed.’
“Here they can make friends and succeed. It connects them to the building, to their peers and to a positive adult first thing in the morning.”
In some cases, it was obvious that very little food was available at weekends — the evidence being students arriving at school ravenous on Mondays.
“We are trying every avenue possible to help. That’s why we reached out to Backpack Buddies for some of our families,” he said. Backpack Buddies is organization that provides weekend food for needy families.
The school has 60 students classed as English language learners, many of them refugees from Iran and Ukraine.
Jordan Bultitude is the food justice and poverty reduction analyst for Gordon Neighbourhood House.
“We are consistently seeing high poverty levels here which has a deep impact on lives, especially access to food,” said Bultitude.
“Food’s the first thing to go when families are living below the poverty line when other things can’t be jeopardized such as housing or child care. So, we started this as a pilot program to try and address food security among youth here and it’s been a great success.”
The breakfast on offer the day Postmedia visited was substantial: waffles, croissants, fruit, a cheese box, cereal and yogurt.
“Pancakes yesterday and smoothies we make with a bicycle powered blender just for fun,” Bultitude concluded.
By Gerry Bellett (firstname.lastname@example.org)