Nanaimo school’s food program will run out of money by Christmas

Nanaimo school’s food program will run out of money by Christmas

Knox is asking for $22,000 from The Vancouver Sun’s Adopt-A-School campaign to carry on after Christmas as no other source of money has materialized.

Holly Knox has 200 or so impoverished teenagers who need to be fed breakfast and lunch every day, which requires 40,000 food servings for the entire school year.

But in September, she only had $9,500 in the bank to do it, and that amount is evaporating every week.

“Our money will run out at Christmas,” said Knox, the culinary arts teacher at John Barsby Community School on Seventh Street, south of Nanaimo’s city centre.

Each day, she and students in her cafeteria class need to make 250 meals in order to keep hunger — which has caused some students to fall ill and have panic attacks — under control at the school.

Thirty per cent of the student population of 750 are living below the poverty line.

They arrive in the morning without having eaten breakfast, with no money to buy lunch or with little or no food to get through the day, and some have no food at home, said Margit Larsen-Rogers, the school’s youth care worker.

“There are many families, single parents, working-class poor parents — with three kids — struggling to make ends meet and wondering, ‘What am I going to be spending my money on this month?’”

It is a similar story throughout the province, with more than one-fifth of children living below the poverty line — thousands of them coming to school each day in need of food.

Larsen-Rogers said families on fixed income or with parents working minimum-wage jobs are often unable to provide sufficient food due to the cost of rent, or loss of employment from the pandemic. All made worse by a significant jump in the price of groceries this year.

So how does all this play out in her school?

“I don’t know if it’s because we are getting back to normal and have more students coming back to school, but I’ve seen more kids have what they think is a panic attack,” she said. “We’re lucky we have a doctor’s office in our school. One day, I sent three kids over there with the same symptoms.

“It turned out it was empty stomachs. The doctor determined it was stomach gas that was wreaking havoc on their bodies. These panic attacks were caused by hunger.”

Canada is alone among the world’s wealthy nations in not providing school meals to impoverished children through dedicated national or provincial programs.

The $9,500 that is keeping Knox’s program afloat was a donation from the President’s Choice Children’s Charity.

She is grateful for the help and also the support from the school’s PAC and the deliveries of vegetables that members of the local Sikh temple occasionally bring during the year.

But she needs cash to continue.

Knox is asking for $22,000 from The Vancouver Sun’s Adopt-A-School campaign to carry on after Christmas as no other source of money has materialized.

The Adopt-A-School program has been inundated with requests from schools this year seeking more than $1.9 million in aid to feed and clothe children, a 46-per-cent increase in applications over the past year.

The breakfasts and lunches that Knox and her students make often vary, but can include boiled eggs, granola, yoghurt and fruit, or it could be a breakfast wrap with eggs, ham and a slice of cheese inside. Lunch can be home-made soup and fresh bread made on the premises, lasagna or spaghetti with tomato sauce, and fruit.

“Our food program is heavily used, 100 breakfasts and 150 lunches every day. These are for students who have come to school without food. Kids who would be coming to me at the end of the day looking for leftovers.

“It’s about equity. We are not trying to feed the whole school, but there are realms here where there isn’t equity. So what we are trying to do is eliminate that visible inequity, especially in regard to food.”

Larsen-Rogers said some students living in poverty also suffer from diabetes, and the quality of the food being prepared by Knox is important for them.

“To eat healthy is expensive, and some families can’t afford it. If we have a student who is diabetic, giving them a granola bar and a juice box is not the answer. So we encourage these kids to tap into our food program and get healthy meals that will maintain their blood sugar at proper levels,” she said.

Before the pandemic arrived, the school had an assortment of community programs that fed students, said Knox.

“We had a real hodge-podge of things — a couple of churches were coming in a couple of times a week serving food. We had a small breakfast program (using money) the school scrounged from their own funds so if the cafeteria made a profit it went right back into feeding kids. But COVID stopped all that.”

“We just want to make sure everyone in the school is taken care of.”

By Gerry Bellett (

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