Volunteers, advocates await news on school food program

·3 min read
Volunteers pack lunches on Leo Hayes High School campus in December 2020. (CBC News/Mike Heenan - image credit)
Volunteers pack lunches on Leo Hayes High School campus in December 2020. (CBC News/Mike Heenan - image credit)

Jessica Bleasdale has been a volunteer for a Fredericton elementary school's breakfast program for four years.

The stay-at-home mother to two sons is used to slicing bagels into two different servings and cutting yogurt tubes in half. But one thing she never gets used to is how often their volunteer-run and donation-driven program runs out of food..

"I do my best to try to know who some of the kids are that could really use it, and make sure that I have that available for them," said Bleasdale.

"But you can really see that some of the kids feel shy to come up and ask a volunteer for food, and they want to make sure that maybe their friends are doing it, too."

Jacques Poitras/CBC
Jacques Poitras/CBC

Bleasdale was ecstatic to hear the Progressive Conservatives make a campaign promise of a $1-million provincial school food program for the 2021-22 school year.

But more than a month into the new school year, the government of Blaine Higgs has said little on the progress of the program.

Updates since 2020

A pilot program was set up in partnership with the Heart & Stroke Foundation in the 2020-2021 school year, initially featuring 10 schools.

Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development Dominic Cardy was asked for an interview, but emailed statements were provided instead.

The department has confirmed an extra nine schools were added to the project to "ensure representation of all seven school districts in the province in both Anglophone and Francophone sectors," and to include "a variety of food programs ranging from schools with no food programs to schools with comprehensive programs."

The provincial government put $200,000 into the pilot program, which was matched by a separate contribution of the same dollar amount by the New Brunswick Medical Society.

Timelines for the school food program in the current school year will be determined once the results of the pilot program are analyzed, said government spokesperson Flavio Nienow.

Why experts say program is needed in N.B.

The New Brunswick Medical Society estimates about one in five kids go to school without food security.

"New Brunswick was the first province in the country to have a school nutrition policy and that was back in 1991," said Mary McKenna, a kinesiology professor at the University of New Brunswick with a background in school food security. "So at the time, we were at the forefront of school food. Unfortunately, that has changed for the worse.

Now, we are the only province in the country to not have provincial funding for school food programs."

Pierre Fournier/CBC News
Pierre Fournier/CBC News

According to Nienow, surveys conducted in schools across the province in both anglophone and francophone sectors over the past year showed approximately 75 per cent of schools offered breakfast programs or services, 60 per cent offered lunch programs or services and 94 per cent offered some kind of food program or service, including breakfast, lunch or snacks.

While most schools have stepped in to run their own food programs, this translates into little uniformity, with different programs being managed by varied criteria, people and resources.

McKenna is the researcher-in-residence for the provincially based Food for All and is a member of the Coalition for Healthy School Food, a national organization that works with the federal government to advocate for a national food school program.

She said the issue needs to stay at the forefront despite COVID-19 complications.

"They also could look to other provinces — Newfoundland in 2018 had invested over a million dollars in their school food programs, in Nova Scotia under their health authority it's $1.7 million. So they have other places that they can look at and I think they don't need to reinvent the wheel here."

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