In September, the Surrey school district took the hesitant step of providing a breakfast – of sorts – to almost 600 hungry children in eight inner-city schools where the poverty rate in some neighbourhoods is an astonishing 80 per cent.
The hesitation was due to a lack of money to provide proper breakfasts and concern that if the program was started, there wouldn’t be corporate sponsors to keep it going.
But the district went ahead, driven by the knowledge that some children in its classrooms couldn’t learn because they were too hungry, and others who were absent might be attracted to school if a breakfast were available.
“It’s the first year we have tried this,” said Surrey school district assistant superintendent Pat Horstead, admitting it was something of a gamble.
Serendipitously, two months later, The Vancouver Sun launched its Adopt-a-School campaign.
And timing being everything, Horstead asked The Vancouver Sun Children’s Fund to consider financing its breakfast program with a donation of $32,000 – $4,000 for each of the eight schools. The request has been approved.
Telus Corporation, a major contributor to Adopt-a-School, had asked that its corporate donation be directed to Surrey.
Last week Jill Schnarr, Telus vice-president of community affairs, visited Mary Jane Shannon elementary in the Guildford area to meet with school board officials.
Schnarr was shocked to learn of the poverty rates in some Surrey neighbourhoods.
“Eighty per cent of kids in a school living at the poverty level? It stuns me. I had no idea it could be that high,” said Schnarr.
“So we’re delighted to be involved in Adopt-a-School. We’re grateful for the opportunity to feed children who might otherwise go hungry,” she said.
The initial scarcity of funds for the breakfast program – which Horstead said could not have been set up without The Breakfast Club of Canada’s assistance – meant schools have been unable to provide the kind of breakfast they would like. “Yes, we’re feeding children but not giving them the nutrition they need to be good learners,” said Horstead.
Breakfast in the eight schools has consisted mostly of toast and when milk was available, Cheerios. Eggs were rare and fresh fruit and vegetables rarer still.
Mary Jane Shannon principal Lois Layton said the infusion of Adopt-a-School money would make an enormous difference.
“We’re hoping now to get milk on a regular basis and yogurt. None of our kids know what yogurt is,” said Layton. “Eggs, cheese – if these children get cheese at home it’s a treat – fresh fruit and vegetables. Getting this help from Adopt-a-School will be huge for our kids and families.”
One of the benefits of a breakfast program is that it introduces children to foods they would never otherwise taste, said Horstead.
“The typical fruit these children would be familiar with are mandarin oranges at Christmas and apples. So there’s a whole variety of fruits and vegetables they don’t even know about, let alone whether they like them or not.
“I remember serving some kids melons – they’d never had melons. Pineapple? They’d seen it in cans but never tasted it fresh. Now we’ll be able to provide a proper nutritional breakfast, not just a fill-thehole breakfast,” said Horstead.
“We’ll be able to give them scrambled eggs, eggs with cheese, and grilled cheese sandwiches with proper cheese, not Kraft cheese slices.
“I know when some people look at inner-city kids and see the obesity [they] say, ‘These kids are overweight; they must be eating too much,'” said Horstead.
“But nothing could be further from the truth. It’s not that they are overeating, it’s because they are only eating carbs. It’s Kraft Dinner for dinner and a Coke for breakfast.”
Schnarr said the Adopt-a-School campaign had opened many people’s eyes to the effects of poverty.
“It’s brought a true awareness to the issues that are in our backyard. While it’s fantastic to support causes globally, we sometimes overlook what’s happening close to home. Being able to feed 600 [Surrey] children is a privilege. It’s mindboggling to know the impact it will have. It will enable those children to learn, encourage them to come to school, give them a shot at a better life. This will have a lasting impact, far beyond the initial meal,” said Schnarr.
Horstead said the usual middle-class suppositions about poverty wouldn’t survive an afternoon distributing food hampers to families living in the ubiquitous three-storey apartments in the Whalley-Guildford areas.
“Every year I hear stories from teachers who have done this. They knock on the door and are shocked at what they see. The room will be bare except for a pile of mattresses stacked against a wall, and that’s it.
“The mattresses go down of a night and there’s eight people living in a small apartment.”
Schnarr said Telus’s participation in Adopt-a-School was important for other reasons.
“We’re a large corporation and our philosophy is to give where we live. We would like to set an example for other corporations to step forward and support this work. I have two boys and I can only imagine what mothers who can’t feed their children are going through.”
By Gerry Bellett (firstname.lastname@example.org)