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Rights + Justice
Municipal Politics

Hands Off Vancouver’s School Meal Programs!

School trustees should reject changes that are bad for workers and students, especially kids living in poverty.

By Noel Herron and Rory Brown 26 Nov 2019 | TheTyee.ca

Noel Herron is the author of Every Kid Counts, a history of VSB inner-city schools. Rory Brown is a former VSB Teacher and former president of the VSTA. Both are members of the OneCity education caucus.

It shouldn’t surprise you that kids come to school hungry in Vancouver. One in five children in B.C. lives in poverty.

It also shouldn’t surprise you that if kids are hungry, they can’t learn.

Right now, Vancouver schools have outstanding programs that teach students how to cook nutritious food and feed the thousands of kids who need it.

High school students in culinary arts courses work with unionized staff to produce meals for elementary hot lunch programs, which are served daily at designated inner-city schools. Meals are available to all students, and families pay what they can.

But a recent report commissioned by the Vancouver School Board made a number of suggestions to save costs that, if pursued, could lead to privatizing or outsourcing of the programs.

Instead of a hot lunch, the report suggests, students who live in homes under an income threshold could receive a bagged lunch, prepared by a private company offsite.

If these and other recommendations in the report go ahead, we fear that kids will no longer learn essential life skills, poverty will be further stigmatized, good union jobs will be lost, and kids won’t get the food they need to learn and play.

Since the 1980s, Vancouver schools have had programs that feed hungry children. Currently, they do involve some privatization. There are private companies, for example, that provide some meals, as well as vending machines that shoot out snacks and quick eats.

And in recent years, school gardens and related food preparation activities have gained attention. Many students, families, teachers and advocates want more fresh, nutritious and varied foods in schools, along with a general valuing of school meals as more than just basic fuel to be provided as cheaply as possible.

In 2012, Vancouver school trustees requested a review to improve food services in the district. In November 2019, after seven years and at least three related reports, the latest report was released.

The board’s Student Learning and Well-Being Committee discussed the report on Nov. 13.

The International Union of Operating Engineers, whose members staff school cafeterias at decent wages, spoke passionately at that committee meeting. Their submission argued that the report’s suggestions would put non-teaching cafeteria services, culinary arts programs and the hot meals that help feed the city’s hungry children at risk.

They concluded the report “lacks any vision for a better system, instead proposing punishing cuts and a dramatic reduction in student opportunities.”

So, what now? At a board meeting Monday night, trustees grappled with the design of an appropriate consultation process. There was no resolution. We hope that all stakeholders, including parents, students and the public, will be able to speak on this vitally important issue. Our kids deserve nothing less than a full consideration of the issues, not just a financial calculation.

We are concerned that core school board principles of universality and equity may now be up for grabs, with public versus private lines being drawn.

We also feel growing concern that the principles that made the Vancouver school district a leader in the area of food preparation and delivery are about to be compromised. We are particularly concerned about the future of the hot breakfasts and lunches necessary for kids to learn, no matter their economic circumstances.

Vancouver in fall 2019 is a vastly different city from the Vancouver of the early 1980s when the school food program first emerged.

Today, escalating housing costs (often between 30 to 50 per cent of household income), galloping childcare costs (including before and after school care), and increasing grocery bills make Vancouver one of the most expensive Canadian cities. This creates enormous pressure on many families, eventually chasing some out of the city. Add to this the widening wealth gap.

Children still arrive in our schools hungry, and they are not only inner-city kids. Their numbers are growing. We seem to be turning a blind eye to the situation of tremendous inequality as more and more families find it hard to put food on the table. Historically, however, the Vancouver School Board, to its eternal credit and against opposition, has provided bipartisan support to families and children in need.

For decades, parents, teachers, principals, superintendents, and trustees in this city have stood up for universal food programs, and they have prevailed. Yet in the new report it appears that “fiscal responsibility” (code word for privatization) could dismantle sizeable segments of the current services in both elementary and secondary schools. The reality implied by the term “fiscal responsibility” is that food programs must be profit-making, or at least revenue-neutral. Those values are inconsistent with equity and universality.

Time, effort, energy and devotion have built the current school board program and services over four decades. Now a fight is looming to keep what we have.  [Tyee]

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