Dolores Campbell: The Breakfast Club

I‘ve been writing regularly about poverty, especially child poverty and especially in the CBRM, for over a year now — looking at the possibility of a guaranteed annual income (GAI), the grim local statistics and creative solutions to problems like hunger and homelessness that might work here, among other aspects of the issue.

Fortunately, for those who face each day wondering how they will feed themselves and their children, often on monthly social assistance payments that force them to make horrible choices between food, rent, child-care, and other necessities most of us take for granted, there are members of our society attempting to improve the situation.

Kinsmen volunteers at the Brookland Elementary School breakfast program. (Source: YouTube)

Kinsmen volunteers at the Brookland Elementary School breakfast program. (Source: YouTube)

One of the most important local efforts to help low-income families was the establishment of the school breakfast program. It’s hard to believe that children leaving for school on empty stomachs is still a common occurrence, but it is. When they reach school, though, they find volunteers and teachers welcoming them with smiles, an opportunity to socialize with their school mates and a nourishing meal which, as those in the know tell us, increases a child’s ability to concentrate and to learn.

Dietitian Debbie Madore has been involved with the breakfast program since 1999, when a Nutrition for Learning Committee was established to address child nutrition in local communities. The committee — made up of staff, administrators, principals and community members — included Senator Sr. Peggy Butts, who was able to secure the government funding with which breakfast programs were established in 10 local schools.

Debbie Madore

There were a number of such programs throughout the province at that point, but the idea of providing school children with a daily meal really gained momentum in 2005, when the provincial government began funding breakfast programs through the school boards. Powered by hundreds of volunteers, the program has since expanded to include 41 schools in the local area (and 93% of Nova Scotia public schools, overall).

Madore sits on the board of Nourish Nova Scotia, a registered charity established in 2012 to work in partnership with government to build on the success of the breakfast program. She was also an active participant on the provincial task force whose job it was in 2007 to develop a Breakfast Food and Nutrition Policy for the province. The policy states that 70% of food served in provincial schools must provide maximum nutrition, which means making more healthy choices of fruit and vegetables available. Under the policy, 30% of food served can be of moderate nutrition. That can include baked chicken nuggets, baked chips, popcorn, molasses or oatmeal cookies. It can also include foods that, if cooked in a different manner (baked rather than deep fried, for example) or made from healthier ingredients with less fat and sugar, will offer kids more nutritious choices. (The policy doesn’t allow pop.)

The problem, though, as Madore told me, is that while replacing deep fryers with convection ovens (which they’ve done) makes for more nutritional food offerings, kids tend to purchase the foods they like. School cafeterias, she says, must walk a tightrope, offering kids nutritious foods on the one hand, but also offering some of the less nutritional foods they will pay for. Cafeterias are not run by the schools, and the owners must make enough money to break even or they will close.

 

Nourish Nova Scotia is now developing a “Snacks and Lunch Program” for all provincial schools that will follow the same food and nutrition policy as the breakfast program. Extra funding introduced by the provincial government in January of 2018, when the province doubled its School Healthy Eating Program budget to $1.975 million, will help in establishing this program. The money also expedited the inclusion of all provincial schools in the breakfast program.

Interestingly enough, another senator, Art Eggleton, introduced a senate motion in June 2018 calling on the federal government “to consult with all stakeholders to develop a cost-shared universal nutrition program across Canada.” Margo Riebe-Butt, executive director of Nourish Nova Scotia, greeted the proposal with enthusiasm:

I’m delighted to see the leaders of this country recognize the federal government’s role in supporting child health and learning with the introduction of Motion no. 358. Universal, healthy school food programs help to level the playing field ensuring all students have access to nutritious food, which in turn supports their learning. Raising children to be healthy productive citizens of the future is in all our best interests.

While such motions have been put forward in 1997 and again in 2015, not much has been achieved, but Senator Eggleton’s motion this year seems to be galvanizing a movement to finally make a national school nutrition program a reality.

This, of course, is music to Madore’s ears.

She says the meals children receive in school are “often the most nutritious they will eat all day,” and she is looking forward to developing the “Snacks and Lunch” program — with provincial assistance but eventually, she hopes, with federal money as well.

But Madore is also interested in changing the culture of food in our society: our habit of giving a child something sweet, for example, when the child is upset, or offering a similar treat as a reward when the child has done something it should have done as a matter of routine, contributes to the notion of food as a sort of “payback,” she says.

Madore also believes that modern family life, with kids involved in so many activities that parents are running from hockey practice to dance lesson to soccer game, can lead to meal choices that require little or no preparation or can be picked up on the drive home when everyone is tired and hungry. This can result in kids not being exposed to much of what their parents saw growing up when mothers, who often didn’t work outside the home, spent a good deal of their time preparing meals for their offspring.

She also looks to a time when more and more schools will develop gardens where students will produce vegetables and fruits for use in school nutrition programs. Nourish Nova Scotia’s Grow Eat Learn program encourages the cultivation of such gardens and Madore says to date they’ve been planted in Baddeck, Marion Bridge and Coxheath.

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But changing our food culture isn’t an easy undertaking she says, especially when so many school fund-raisers involve the sale of non-nutritious food items. Some schools, though, have come up with novel ways to raise funds for school trips: Riverview High School students, for example, sold pumpkins last year and will probably do the same this year.

Meanwhile, Madore continues to see that school cupboards are filled with food items that provide proper nutrition — fruit and fruit juices; whole milk; whole-grain bagels, toast and cereal — all good choices that can make a difference in students’ approach to each school day and contribute to their good health.

The fact that Canada, according to a UNICEF study published in 2017, ranked 37th out of 41 nations in terms of child food security should surely motivate our politicians to ensure all children have access to such programs.

 

Dolores Campbell

 

Dolores Campbell, a lifelong resident of Sydney, is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Cape Breton Highlander, the Nova Scotian, Cape Breton Magazine, Catholic New Times and The Cape Breton Post.

 

 

 

 

 

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