Life

A Food Fight Heats Up

Susan McClelland April 17 2000
Life

A Food Fight Heats Up

Susan McClelland April 17 2000

A Food Fight Heats Up

Life

Susan McClelland

Every weekday, Mitchell Borden arrives at John Martin Junior High School in Dartmouth, N.S., by 8:15 a.m. He’s not there to study or to take part in an extracurricular activity. Mitchell goes for a free breakfast, available through a program the school set up in 1997. It’s a self-serve kitchen, and the 13-year-old usually grabs a glass of milk and makes a sandwich out of an egg, some cheddar cheese and an English muffin.

While Mitchell enjoys the chance to hang out with friends before class, his mother, Janice, appreciates the food—food she can’t always afford to provide herself. As a single mother, she has struggled to make ends meet since arthritis forced her to leave a high-paying job as a fish-plant worker more than 10 years ago. Soon after, she and her husband separated, and Janice was left to support her three sons—Mitchell is the youngest—on a monthly disability cheque of $400. Although Janice, 44, has taken courses in cooking and retail management, she has not been able to find a job, and now relies on welfare to pay the rent. Before Mitchell started to

attend the breakfast program, he tried to help his mother out by skipping meals. “It didn’t work, though,” he says. “I used to think about food all the time. I would sit in class and think about how I can’t wait for lunch.”

It’s difficult to argue with initiatives that feed hungry children, yet subsidized meals have become a flash point in an increasingly heated debate over how to fight poverty in this country. Critics say that although the meal programs receive government funding, the job of feeding the poorest Canadians has fallen largely on food banks that generally receive no public money at all. That’s because many of the poorest children don’t live where meal programs are available, or their parents are not aware the programs exist. What’s more, the majority of kids eating the subsidized meals are not from poor families, because the programs are open to everyone. That, researchers say, means the public funds are doing far less to combat poverty than they should. Sue Cox, executive director of the Daily Bread Food Bank in Toronto, says that the effectiveness of meal programs is limited to the few areas or schools in which they are served. “It is a targeted approach to fighting poverty,” she says, “but food programs miss more people than they hit.” Proponents of subsidized meals, however, claim their initiatives are essential. Various levels of government and charities inject an estimated $70 million annually into childrens food programs. There are no nationwide figures available, but one organization, III Toronto-based Breakfast for Learning, says it sup3G ports about 2,000 programs across the country and served 45 million meals last year. Supporters say the HH.« spinoff benefits are huge, both for the kids’ physical Sj|§ well-being and their academic achievement— 9&a| § research shows that students perform better if they R = have had a decent breakfast. If anything, they say, Canada should adopt a national plan such as in the United States, which has had federally mandated breakfast and lunch initiatives in schools for decades. “It’s a social change that is happening in Canada,” says Martha O’Connor, Breakfast for Learning’s executive director. “It’s an acknowledgment that children are all of our responsibility.” Hungry kids were supposed to be history in Canada. In 1989, when researchers declared that one in six children was living in poverty, the federal government announced its intention to eradicate child poverty by 2000. But over the past decade, anti-poverty promises were derailed by massive cutbacks in federal and provincial assistance programs. Driven by those alarming poverty statistics, meal programs in schools, community centres, church basements and housing complexes began to proliferate. Government input is generally limited to funding; volunteer groups organize the buying, cooking and distribution.

Ilyaev watches as a volunteer serves her children breakfast: ‘It makes things a little easier

Governments and charities spend $70 million a year on children’s meal programs, but critics say too many poor kids are still going hungry

Anti-poverty campaigners don’t necessarily want meal programs eliminated. They want governments to inject new money into initiatives that would leave parents with enough money to buy their own food. The poor need affordable housing and day care, they say, and a restoration of funding to various forms of social assistance. Libby Davies, the New Democrat MP for Vancouver East, was involved in that city’s funding battles for a lunch program. “We need to scream and shout at the federal government,” she says, “to address the causes of poverty.”

In an exhaustive study of breakfast programs in the Atlantic provinces, Dr. Lynn McIntyre, a professor of childrens health at Dalhousie University, concluded that about 75 per cent of

attendees were not poor. And a 1998 Toronto board of health survey found that attendees were more often kids whose parents both work and leave early for their jobs, or who are bused in from outlying areas and are famished after a long commute. There are students who have to be at school early for extracurricular commitments to sports or clubs, and who then stop for a bite before class. And then there are those that go just to socialize. Still, McIntyre says, the image of needy children makes meal programs an easy sell to governments and private donors alike. “What frustrates me is that they are playing the hunger card,” says McIntyre.

Food-bank officials are frustrated, too. The Canadian Association of Food Banks reported in March of 1999 that parents of about 324,000 children used food banks—double the number from 10 years before. Yet the Greater Vancouver Food Bank Society, which survives solely on private donations, currently provides about 500 kg of food each week to three government-funded agencies that, in turn, supply area meal programs. “We are happy to give the food,” says Trevor Dyck, supervisor of distribution, “but the bottom line is it’s disturbing the amount of people we serve that are sent here by government agencies.” The central food bank in Winnipeg, deluged with similar donation pleas from public agencies, simply turns them down.

“Governments can’t keep cutting welfare dollars so a family can’t eat,” says David Northcott, director of Winnipeg’s main food bank, “and then put that money towards meal programs.”

Northcott says too many needy people fall through the cracks. Deanna Schick, a 31year-old single mother of two preschoolers, now works as an administrative assistant at a Winnipeg church where she

had volunteered for a year. But before she got the job, Schick survived on social assistance, and after taking care of the rent, household bills and day-care fees while she was looking for a job, Schick didn’t have much money left for food. There was no nearby meal program, so twice a month she relied on the local food bank, even if it often meant going without crucial items such as baby formula, fruit and vegetables. There was one week when she was able to buy milk only because she found a $5 bill on the street. “The toughest thing is hearing your children cry because they are hungry,” she says. “It’s so hard.”

Meal programs provide an essential service in many areas. At a North Toronto housing project, for instance, the National Council of Jewish Women started a program a year ago to feed kids in the project a wholesome breakfast three days a week. “It makes things a little easier,” says Rosa Ilyaev, whose three daughters, Nataly, 9, Danielle, 7, and Sarah, 5, attend regularly. Since 1996, when her marriage dissolved and Ilyaev was forced to live in a shelter, then in a subsidized apartment, she has battled to make ends meet. “I used to worry about how I was going to feed my girls,” says Ilyaev. “Now I don’t.”

Proponents say meal programs are looking to expand their services. In 1997, the nonprofit Breakfast for Learning, which administers some provinces’ funding for food programs, asked several federal ministries for about $20 million to support its national programs. None of the federal ministries has committed so far, but Health Canada did give the agency $258,000 to study the issue. Brian Ward, director of the childhood and youth division at Health Canada, says meal programs work when administered at a community level. “Our goal,” he added, “is to come up with the best ways this can be done.”

Before agreeing to any funding, Health Canada undertook its own study into whether meal programs are sound social policy, and what role the federal government should assume. But in a time when so many programs are going begging, governments may decide there are other priorities. “We have been going the last few years on a wing and a prayer,” says study author David Hay, a principal at Information Partnership, a research firm on social policy in Victoria. “Now, we need to take a hard look at what is being delivered, and to whom.” E3