Help for hunger; local school looks for solutions

WINGHAM – No child should ever have to go to school on an empty stomach. The goal of school breakfast/snack clubs is to combat this by providing healthy food and snacks for students.

Issues arising from the pandemic seem to have amplified the need at many schools; Wingham’s youngest residents are not immune to the soaring rise in the cost of food, which has Maitland River Elementary School Principal Angela Cowley concerned.

Cowley recently organized a meeting between herself, some local moms/volunteers, an organizer from a local fundraising group, and the Wingham Advance Times to work on solutions to the growing needs of the community’s most vulnerable assets, the children.

Teresa Becker, Mandy Henderson, Marilyn Whitfield, and Cowley outlined the current services with Randy LeBlanc from the Independent Motorcycle Club (IMC). They discussed what has worked and what hasn’t, brainstormed new ideas, and discussed the next steps during the Maitland River Elementary School meeting.

The school’s teachers and volunteers keep an eye on the students in their care, and they are noticing an increase in kids who may not have enough food with them from home to make it through the day.

Cowley spoke about a couple of recent situations when she realized that some of her students were not eating on lunch breaks. She spoke of one young person who would go and sit by themself in a different room during lunch. Upon investigation, Cowley discovered that their only packed lunch item was a fruit cup with rotten peaches.

Situations like this are becoming fairly common at the school, and some teachers/volunteers find themselves bringing in extra home-packed lunches to give out.

The program at Maitland River is an inclusive one. The organizers who run it have ensured that any student can have whatever they desire from the cupboards, regardless of their situation, thus not making those less fortunate stand out from others.

Another situation discussed during the round table meeting was those students who are early risers, who eat early and are hungry by the time school starts.

There are many different ways that the school raises money to fund this project. The organizers must have a complete list of all the places they will apply to for funding by April; usually, the schools have enough to get them through each year.

Maitland River Elementary School students, teachers, and volunteers greatly appreciate the ongoing support from several organizations in the community that regularly donate to the breakfast/snack programs.

The school budgets for what they need, and they keep a contingency fund with approximately enough funds for an entire year’s program. But the 2021 program saw those funds decrease for the first time before the year ran out.

President’s Choice (PC) Children’s Charity raises funds at the checkout, and they contribute to the breakfast clubs and snack programs, with an option to have food delivered to the school. Maitland River Elementary’s annual funds have been around $12,000. So they decided that having some fresh fruits and vegetables delivered to the school was a good plan.

The school exchanges the cash for 900 pieces of produce a week, which cuts down on time spent driving to and from the grocery store and transporting it back.

“Last year, I figured there was about $16,000 that came in between President’s Choice, [Independent MC’s], Farm Credit, the New Orleans fundraiser, the McDonald’s fundraiser, the Smile cookies [Tim Hortons], and the Knights of Columbus donation,” said Henderson. “Now, there are also some parent individual donations that probably were around $2,000. And then after that, we had to dip into our extra funds that we kind of keep for emergencies.”

The total funds needed to continue to feed the increasing need for nutritious and balanced diets is at least $26,000. Their preliminary breakfast club/snack program budget is close to $3,000 per month, totalling $30,000 for the ten months of school programming.

In-school fundraisers like “pizza day” and other fun activities continue to happen and provide some additional funds for the school cupboards, but the main concern for the teachers/volunteers is having enough to go around.

They hope the additional funds required will be raised by reaching out to the community and letting people know of the current situation.

Cowley said, “We can’t say it enough; there is truly no judgement. You really do have to walk a mile in somebody’s shoes before you judge them. Our parents, there’s lots of them that are working nights. The mom works nights, the dad works days. They’re just trying to get by. It’s soaring, literally soaring fuel costs. This morning, I heard on the radio that heat for your house might double, like what are our families supposed to do? They literally are trying their best.”

For more information, to donate funds or time (volunteer), please get in touch with Cowley at Maitland River Elementary School.

Any donation over $20 will be provided a tax receipt.

Sacred Heart Catholic School principal Dan Bodkin reported a similar situation with their nutrition programs.

“Our lead fundraiser, Kathleen MacDonald, who is part of our EA team, sat down with me, and we talked about the work she does,” Bodkin said in an email. “She fundraises for the snack program here at Sacred Heart, which augments kids’ lunches and snacks. We put out a daily fruit bowl in every class. We provide lunches when kids forget or don’t have enough. We do breakfast for kids that need it. Kathleen also stocks a weekly snack bin in addition to the daily fruit bowl. She comes in early to do this all on her own time.

“Kathleen says that ‘since COVID, we have had an increase in need that is noticeable.’ For example, the snack bin used to be weekly, but now she fills it or tops it up every two days.

“Kathleen has approached several Service organizations and these are the ones who have donated: The Independents (motorcycle club), Knights of Columbus of Wingham, Belgrave Kinsmen, Britespan, [and the] Lions Club of Lucknow and Brussels have both donated.”

Tim Hortons donates through School Nutrition Ontario.

Note: The Wingham Advance Times reached out to F.E. Madill Secondary School for input but did not receive a response before press time.

Cory Bilyea, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Wingham Advance Times