Sandy Matthews knows the impact an empty stomach has on a seven-year-old’s concentration.
As the Greater Victoria School District’s CommunityLINK facilitator, she’s in charge of co-ordinating in-school programs that help vulnerable students.
One such offering is the school meals program, which aims to feed students who come to school without breakfast or lunch.
“We see the difference every day from kids that are being fed. Teachers see them being able to focus more, it helps their learning, they’re happier on the playground, they’re less likely to get into arguments,” Matthews said.
“When kids come to school hungry, it’s hard for them to cope. This is a really vital program.”
The Greater Victoria district offers a variety of meals programs at a number of schools in the region.
Twelve schools have full breakfast programs, where kids can get toast, nut butter, cheese and juice, another 12 receive a cold lunch program, and five have a catered hot lunch program, altogether serving hundreds if not more than a thousand kids throughout the city.
“(The cold lunch program is) grab-and-go, brown paper bag lunch that goes to the neediest of the needy; the kids who might come to school without lunch,” Matthews said. “These kids will quietly go into the office and pick up a lunch.”
The hot lunch program is pay-what-you-can, so some parents pay full price to have their kid receive a well-rounded, nutritious meal every day, while others are partially or fully subsidized.
“I think a lot of Victorians would be surprised to know this is needed, because people don’t equate Victoria with poverty,” Matthews said. “There’s a huge number of working poor, and I think those are the ones we’re assisting most.”
Lori Burley, principal at Tillicum community school, says the meals program is an invaluable asset for her students. About 120 kids, or about half the school, use the service each day.
“It means we’re able to meet the basic needs so they’re better prepared to come to school, be at school and be focused on the learning, rather than on the basic necessities of life,” Burley said. “It provides us an opportunity to develop a more nurturing, welcoming environment where everyone recognizes a child’s basic needs are being met.”
On Wednesday, the Vancouver Island Greek Community Society cooked the students and staff at Tillicum a traditional lunch – souvlaki, tzatziki, tiropita.
“I wish we had Greek lunch every day,” said an excited Nolan Nyvall, 6, after cleaning off his plate.
The society, in co-operation with Saanich firefighters, also presented the school with a $3,000 cheque – proceeds raised during last year’s Greek Fest – that will go towards financing Tillicum’s meals program.
“It’s really overwhelming to see the need and the reception we got from the children and the school,” said Michael Ikonomou, president of the VIGCS. “Greek Fest is long gone, but we’re still doing things in our community.”
Burley said the money will go a long way to assist the school, which also offers snacks three times a day, as well as an after-school program that includes two nutritional breaks.
The meals program also includes educational components, where students learn about balanced lifestyles and healthy diets.
Matthews said the district is always looking to make more connections with service groups and businesses in the community that may wish to provide assistance.
“We would be looking for financial assistance, donation of time or even donation of goods,” she said. “This is a wonderful community-building exercise. We all see the really positive benefits of when these kids are fed.”
Organizations interested in supporting the school meals program are encouraged to contact Matthews at 250-475-4241.