Emily-anne King is co-founder of Backpack Buddies, a charity organization based in Metro Vancouver that provides care packages of food to schoolchildren.
As children returned to classes across the country this month, many arrived with a hearty appetite for learning and discovery. But behind the scenes, a gnawing fear was already biting at the heels of others struggling to outrun a problem they wouldn’t dare mention: On weekends, they go hungry.
School meal programs have transformed the lives of many Canadian children living in poverty – still nearly one in 10 kids nationally, according to Statistics Canada, and nearly one in five in some provinces. Many children would not otherwise have nutritious food to fuel them through the school week.
But these critical programs have not solved the problem facing vulnerable children and working families. It’s time for Canadians to start talking about – and taking action on – weekend hunger, experienced by children from working class or lower-income families when they are away from school lunch programs.
This is not a minor problem: Studies indicate hunger causes children to make slower gains in school and grow up at a greater risk of poor health, chronic conditions, depression and even suicidal thoughts in adolescence. Nutrient deficiencies, such as iron deficiency, are known to impair learning and cause decreased productivity in school-aged children, meaning consistent hunger can set a student back for life. Sadly, we know that hungry children are often unlikely to ask for help, for fear of getting their parents in trouble.
Sadly, families living in poverty are struggling more than ever in many urban centres as the cost of living climbs, leaving only scraps leftover for healthy food. The simple reality is that food banks cannot keep up; eight in 10 provinces saw an increase in food bank use in 2016, according to Food Banks Canada. In British Columbia, the province I call home, we enjoy one of the most robust economies in the country but also one of the higher child poverty rates, at a staggering 20.3 per cent, according to research by First Call in British Columbia.
To effectively address this problem, governments need to continue stepping in, bringing financial backing and policies that address weekend hunger. It would be a wise investment that will lead to better education for struggling children. Canada needs the full potential of every one of these children: as contributing citizens, taxpayers, friends and neighbours.
Teachers, parents, and fellow students have a role to play as well. By staying vigilant and compassionately watching behaviour on Monday mornings, in particular, they may notice a child whom they can discreetly help. Children who don’t eat on weekends may appear tired and lethargic, arrive late to class or fall ill more often.
As parents, you can help by taking the simple step of packing extra healthy snacks for your children to share with their hungry friends. Or, consider speaking to a school administrator about connecting an at-risk neighbour to weekend nutrition through local programs such as Backpack Buddies. It’s a sensitive area and this must be done with dignity, but our recipient families often tell us they wouldn’t make ends meet without it. One Grade 3 student once told me that, before Backpack Buddies, she had nothing over the weekend but water.
We need to do better. We need to demand our governments do better. We need schools to assist in the fight, for their own students and those in other schools. Most of all, we need individuals to notice, care and raise the issue. No child should go to school hungry on Monday morning. Children deserve a fair shot at learning, socializing and growing.
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