ALBERNI VALLEY NEWS
A number of Port Alberni organizations are taking steps to combat hunger in schools across the Alberni Valley. But the Food Backpack program at Dunn Elementary is one that works from home.
The concept is this: students get to bring home bags, or “backpacks,” full of food over the weekend to keep themselves and their families fed.
Linda Taylor was a teacher at Eighth Avenue Elementary School who recognized that there was a need for the program. She noted that students were fed at school during the week, but, “I was noticing that kids were coming to school hungry on Mondays,” she said. She spoke to principal Lisa Gunther, who confirmed that there was a need.
With the merge between Eighth Avenue Elementary and Dunn Middle School, the need has grown exponentially.
The Food Backpack Program is in its fifth year. It is run by Taylor and retired nurse Olive O’Dwyer, as well as a group of around ten volunteers, mostly made up of former teachers or administrators who have spent time in the school system and recognize the need for such a program.
“We’ve never had to ask anybody to come and help,” said Taylor. “They’ve all found us.”
The program currently serves 36 families, with around 150-160 family members per week. It started out with six families.
The program receives donations from the Costco in Nanaimo–items like bread, fresh produce, yogurt, and canned goods–which are then delivered to the school by the Port Alberni Shelter. They also receive donations from a number of local Port Alberni businesses, including Saint Vincent de Paul Society and Quality Foods.
“We’re quite touched by the number of people in town who have shown their support,” said Taylor. “The community seems to have come together around it.”
The bags all include fresh produce and proteins, but the focus, said O’Dwyer, is on trying to make a meal. One bag, for example, will feature all the ingredients for a hearty stew. “We aim for real food, rather than Kraft Dinner,” she said. “We always put in a protein. We’re trying to make healthy meals.”
“We’d like to add things like toothpaste, toothbrushes, and soaps,” she added.
Jean Thomas, the Nuu-chah-nulth education worker, contacts all the families and determines the need. The program, she said, is “quite popular.”
“Some of them are big families,” she said. “It’s a mixture of First Nations and non-First Nations families using it.”
Volunteers pack up the backpacks on Thursday, and Thomas helps to distribute them after school. The students are then able to bring the food home over the weekend.
“Most of these parents are on or below the poverty line,” said Taylor. “And this is very much appreciated.”
The volunteers have a large space in the back of the school, attached to the kitchen where the school lunch program is run, and the atmosphere is warm and friendly. Volunteers are able to take time off as they need it and work the time around their schedules. “We’ve had incredibly supportive administration and staff here,” said Taylor.
Other programs in town work towards keeping kids healthy and fed during their school years, too. Read and Feed coordinator Sally Anderson runs a breakfast program across four schools in the Alberni Valley (Wood, Maquinna, Alberni, and Neill elementary schools). The program is going into its ninth year, and close to 150 volunteers keep almost 300 kids fed in the morning.
Anderson has student volunteers from grades 4-7 helping out with the breakfast program in the morning, as well as parent volunteers. One such volunteer is Sheila Hvid, whose children attend A.W. Neill Elementary and ADSS.
“I work part-time, which freed up my schedule in order to volunteer at both places,” she said. Her son, Mattias, is also in attendance some mornings to help out in the kitchen.
Anderson is always appreciative of the help. “Without them, we would have no program,” said Anderson. “We’re looking to them to encourage the children to volunteer.” Anderson says she is always looking for younger volunteers to step up, as much of the help in the program comes from retirees.
The Alberni District Secondary School Breakfast Club is also in its ninth year. This program is unique, in that it includes hygiene items, clothing and school supplies, as well as a live breakfast every morning.
The program is run by volunteers and relies on donations, while students from the Life Skills class deliver food to different classrooms every morning. “They’ve been awesome,” said club coordinator Melody Burton. “It really helps us out.”
The club features a comfortable lunch room where kids can socialize, but also has a storage room where food and other items (like personal hygiene products and clothing) are kept. This storage area is arranged like a shop, so it makes kids feel a little more comfortable about using the products.
“There’s no stigma,” Burton said. “Whoever’s hungry gets to eat.”
Administrators or counsellors will bring students to the breakfast club, but they can also hear about it through word-of-mouth from other students. Burton estimates more than 400 kids are fed every day, which is an enormous change from the club’s humble start.
“It’s grown from three toasters,” she said.
On Wednesday, Save On Foods presented the ADSS Breakfast Club with a cheque for almost $2,000, as well as $200 in gift cards and cases of peanut butter, jam and juice boxes. Save On Foods raises funds for the Breakfast Club every year, but the extra food was a surprise for Burton.
“That was a shock,” she laughed.
Between all these the different programs, volunteers across the community are combating hunger at school and at home. The hope, says Lynda Taylor, is that kids will remain well-fed throughout their school years. “Maybe then they have a fighting chance to go on,” she said.