'It needs to be done:' Staff keep Iqaluit school breakfast program going

IQALUIT, Nunavut — School staff in Iqaluit have banded together to ensure that students in the capital of Nunavut don't go hungry because of closed classrooms.

In a territory with some of the highest rates of food insecurity in the country, they're continuing to provide breakfasts to school children.

"Some kids really rely on it," said Jason Rochon, a Grade 3-4 student support worker at Joamie Ilinniarvik School. "Every day, it's getting bigger and bigger."

Rochon has been helping run a breakfast program and food bank at the school for a few years. When the decision was made March 16 to shut down classes over the COVID-19 pandemic, his first thought was to start packing bags of food for kids to take home with them.

"I could just tell by the amount of food they were taking that they really wanted to have it," he said. "I thought, 'Well, it's not going to last them forever.'

"Nobody was doing anything about the lack of a breakfast program. I just talked to my friends and we decided to do something."

What they arrived at was breakfast-in-a-bag — a simple meal of cereal, milk, cheese, yogurt and a piece of fruit tucked in a paper bag to minimize the need for contact.

The first morning, they served about 180 kids. The next day, it was 200. On Monday, it was 412 — their biggest day yet.

The operation has grown large enough to require its own warehouse. It serves people from two sites.

The breakfast program serves a real need in Iqaluit. Poverty, limited employment opportunities and the high price of food that has to be transported from the south keep families hungry.

A 2014 study found 60 per cent of children in Nunavut lived in food-insecure households. Three-quarters of children in severely insecure homes regularly skipped meals.

Food programs are a feature of all Iqaluit schools, open to all students so none are singled out for needing them.

All the breakfast program workers are volunteers. Rochon said each bag costs about five dollars.

The money comes from wherever he can find it. Friends have donated, as have people in town. The Nunavut land-claims organization has promised $25,000.

They even received $6,000 from people in Greenland who had sent the money to help with food security issues when Iqaluit's biggest grocery store burned down last year.  

Right now, Rochon said, there's enough money to keep the program going until April 20.

"If the school closures are extended, I'm going to need to look for funds. If I've got funds, I'm happy to feed people because it needs to be done."

The food comes from the south, ordered through a local grocery store.

As yet, Nunavut has no confirmed COVID-19 cases. Still, workers at the breakfast program are careful. Everyone wears gloves, people line up two metres apart and only one member from each family can attend.

The protocol has been approved by health officials, Rochon said.

"People have been very respectful. We don't want to get shut down." 

The need is great, he said. On Monday, crews handed out 200 bags of food in the first 20 minutes.

"As soon as 9 o'clock hits, we're just swamped," he said. "It's just go, go, go.

"I think everybody in town knows that the little kids need food and they rely on our breakfast programs."

This report from The Canadian Press was first published April 7, 2020

— Follow Bob Weber on Twitter at @row1960

Bob Weber, The Canadian Press