Earlier this month, the Vancouver School Board released a report into the school district’s food services operations that among other things recommends ending hot lunch programs offered at a smattering of schools and replacing them with cold bagged lunches.
The report, done by Chemistry Consulting Group at the behest of the district, took a rather clinical, dollars-and-cents approach and concluded the hot-lunch programs are too expensive and are feeding some children who aren’t from “needy” families and whose parents could afford to pay. With the savings realized from moving to a cold lunch and added screening by principals and teachers to identify children most in need, the district could feed 340 additional students across a broader swath of schools.
The report did not explain how teachers would identify needy children except to say only those from families on the Social Security Index would qualify for a free lunch. Nor did it address how to avoid stigmatizing children as poor if the rules are changed.
There are 10 elementary schools in Vancouver’s lowest-income neighbourhoods where hot lunches are served. In those schools, students are sent home with blank envelopes to collect money from their parents. They are returned to staff with as much or little as the family can afford to pay. There is no way for classmates to know whose parents chipped in and whose did not. This is as it should be. Children ashamed of their family’s economic circumstances will sometimes opt to go hungry rather than be seen in the poor-kid line, queuing for a free lunch.
The report authors crunched the numbers and did an admirable job of parsing the district’s patchwork of food delivery programs. There are 15 nutrition services running at 119 sites, so it’s easy to see why the programs are not as efficient as they could be. And the authors also consulted a working group comprised of school district staff.
But they did not talk to children or parents like Jamie Smallboy, a single mother and college student with five children still in school, three of them in Strathcona Elementary where hot lunches are served. The school’s lunch program literally helps her family survive on an extremely tight budget. “There are days I have gone without eating to ensure my children can eat if they are hungry.” On those days, she finds it hard to concentrate, which, of course, is the very reason school-lunch programs were started for school-aged children.
Ms. Smallboy’s children would still qualify for a school lunch if the report recommendations were adopted. But she believes restricting lunches, either cold or hot, to only a select group of needy children is a terrible idea. “That would show you’re poor.” She cautions there are people technically above the poverty line who are barely getting by. Ms. Smallboy says her sister earns too much to qualify for low-income housing, which means she must find $2,600 a month in rent for her and her children.
“Because of that, she’s constantly at the food bank.”
A 2003 study of charitable school and community-based nutrition programs that aimed to feed hungry children in Atlantic Canada found they often failed to serve their target population. The study, published in the journal Critical Public Health by three Canadian academics, concluded parents resisted taking advantage of the food programs for fear their children would be stigmatized.
None of this is a problem in enlightened countries such as France, Italy, Japan, Sweden and Finland that offer universal meal programs to all students. And therein lies the failing of commissioning a report specifically to find savings.
Instead of looking for cuts, the VSB should join lobbying efforts of the Coalition for Healthy School Food, a national group pushing for a Canada-wide universal healthy school food program. They are getting traction: in the spring budget before the election, the federal Liberals announced their intention to develop a national school meal program. There was no money allocated, but it’s something the NDP supports, and in this minority government the timing might be right.
For now the VSB should avoid means testing or any other drastic changes that might deter children from taking advantage of food on offer, regardless of cost or quality.