Parents face wrench in plan to expand school kitchen

The Parent Advisory Council (PAC) for the Valemount Elementary School has hit another roadblock in its efforts to expand the school kitchen. The PAC applied for a Columbia Basin Trust Resident-Directed grant to fund a kitchen expansion, but on March 26th the Village Council decided against approving the request at the grant adjudication committee’s recommendation.

The roughly 10-by-10 foot kitchen – which includes an oven, stovetop, refrigerator, and snack cart – is too cramped to cook for the school’s 120-plus students, said PAC president Leaha Johnson. The PAC applied for $69K in grant money to demolish a wall and expand the kitchen, create more storage and food preparation space, and install a deep freezer. The money would also have gone to purchasing more food for future meals.

“[The kitchen is] just really small for what our dream is to have for the students,” Johnson told The Goat. “We would ultimately love to, Monday through Friday, have lunch provided for the students.”

Currently, Indigenous Education Worker and Meal Worker Cheri Dehnke prepares lunch for the students twice a month. She also stocks PAC-funded snack carts every day, which provide nutritious snacks to any student free of charge.

Dehnke said the kitchen’s small dimensions make it difficult to prepare and store food.

“Basically an adult and a student are all [the people] that can be in there,” she said. “There’s one stove, there’s usually two big crockpot things and a pot of soup in that tiny kitchen. We make it work, but then one of your crockpots is on the trolley, one is on the only counter you have, so if there’s any cutting or anything then it’s hard.”

Aside from the lack of space, the home appliances in the kitchen aren’t built for mass cooking, Dehnke and Johnson said. According to them, the refrigerator and freezer are too small to store mass quantities of food for Dehnke to serve later, so she has to cook big batches of food all at once.

Given the physical constraints of the kitchen and a lack of funding, the hot meal program only runs twice a month – meaning food-insecure students are missing out on nutritious, hot meals, Johnson said.

“If parents can only provide their kids with cheap options, but the school is able to provide them with nutrients and vitamins and healthier means to get their food [...] it would be nice to have something like that in place for kids,” she said. “As a group, we can help lift up these families when they’re struggling the most with their kids being nourished. I think that’s really what the point of [the PAC] is: we’re here to support and provide for the kids.”

Additionally, while the PAC works with local restaurants and collects donations to provide free hot lunches for the students once a month, that program has been less successful this year, Johnson said. Just three of the usual eight restaurants have volunteered to participate, which Johnson attributes to businesses struggling to cope with inflation.

The lack of food storage space makes it hard to run this part of the program, too, said Johnson.

“If we’re going to open up the program to be a little bit more expansive, a single fridge and freezer isn’t going to hold [a lot of food],” she said. “We don’t have deep freezers, we don’t have the space [to store food for long periods]. With the expansion of the kitchen, we would have deep freezers and a bigger fridge.”

The Council has been advocating for a bigger kitchen for years, according to Johnson. School District 57, which encompasses the Regional District of Fraser-Fort George, told the Council that it could not fund renovations, she said.

The District board provided a letter of support for the Council’s grant application, explaining that it would not fund the project. However, the grant adjudication committee told the Council that funding kitchen renovations was the responsibility of the District, according to Johnson. Resident-Directed grants cannot be used to pay for projects that are the responsibility of local governments, in accordance with CBT’s rules for grant applications.

Other Parent Advisory Councils have run into similar problems when they have asked for funding from the District, Johnson said.

“There’s a school in Prince George that has the same size kitchen as we do for an elementary school with, like, four times the kids we have and they’ve been asking for 20 years from the school board for an expansion of their kitchen and have been denied it,” she said.

The Goat reached out to the District Parent Advisory Council for more information, but did not receive a response.

Johnson said that next year, the PACwill keep applying for funding with different groups, and may explore using empty rooms in the school as extra food preparation space.

“If we were able to get a couple of deep freezers and a couple more fridges, maybe just even an island to do some preparation in the classroom across [from the kitchen], that’s really all we’d need,” she said. “It’s a dream to have a bigger kitchen. I think the program and the dreams of that [bigger kitchen] is super important, but we’re certainly not going to get that at this point. It’s a little wrench in our cog right now, so we’ll figure it out.”

Abigail Popple, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Rocky Mountain Goat