Every morning when students at Sainte Agathe Academy in the Laurentians walk into class, breakfast is waiting for them.
A grey plastic cafeteria bin sits at the front of the room, loaded with at least two kinds of fruit, a protein such as a boiled egg, yogurt or pieces of cheese, bread (or another grain) and cartons of milk.
"The milk is the best," said kindergarten student Everest McFadden. "I love [the breakfast program]."
His classmate Léo Wihelmy, who agrees about the milk, says cheese is another favourite — but not fruit.
"I don't like any fruit because they're yucky," he said with disdain.
When the breakfast program started two years ago it was for elementary students only, then offered to all students at the pre-K to Secondary 5 school — but only three days per week.
Now, thanks in large part to a grant from the Breakfast Club of Canada, it is offered to all, every day, no questions asked.
There are two main reasons the program is needed at the small school of 246 students, said community learning centre co-ordinator Chantal Paquin.
First, some students spend up to two hours on a bus every morning.
"When they get here, they are hungry," Paquin said. She says even she couldn't eat if she knew she was going to spend two hours sitting on a bumpy bus ride.
The second factor, she says, is the elementary school is "coded" eight out of 10, meaning it has a high proportion of students who come from families living in a precarious socioeconomic situation.
"If the kids come to school hungry, how can they learn?" she said.
Poverty in the region
The Laurentians are known to be an area dotted with large second homes, where luxury cars cruise down Highways 15 and 117.
"You would think that in Sainte-Agathe we would have a population that is wealthy but sadly the wealth is only on the weekends," Paquin said.
She says many residents work in the ski industry, campgrounds or other seasonal jobs and have been hit hard by the pandemic.
Documents compiled by the an organisation that represents local governments, the Conseil des préfets des élus des Laurentides, show nearly 25 percent of residents living in the MRC des Laurentides, which includes Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts and Mont-Tremblant, live in material or social poverty.
During the severe COVID-19 lockdown periods, Paquin and other staff used the money for the breakfast program to buy and deliver groceries to 14 families they knew were in deep need.
Staff at Sainte Agathe Academy are well aware some families struggle with food security. It's something students understand as well.
"I think it's good because many people and their families don't have a lot of money and this helps to feed them," says fifth-grader Charles Paquette.
Smooth start to the day
Charles's teacher, John Colatosti, says beyond filling bellies, the breakfast program helps his students transition into their school day. It's a moment for students to bond and talk.
The students file into the classroom, masks covering their faces, smiles in their eyes.
"Start chomping," he tells them.
"This is an integral part of their morning," he said. "It's the 15 minutes that lets them settle in, and then they are ready to go."
The breakfast program at Sainte Agathe Academy costs a bit more than $38,000 annually. While it is mostly funded by the Breakfast Club of Canada, PC Charities and the Rotary Club of Mont Tremblant are also contributors, providing about $6,000 each.
LISTEN | Marika Wheeler visits Sainte Agathe Academy's breakfast club: