Public schools may be open but with no students attending because in-person classes are suspended owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, School District 82 is getting creative when it comes to providing food to vulnerable students.
In a normal time each of the district’s schools has some form of a breakfast and lunch program, says Agnes Casgrain who is the district’s indigenous education director and who also oversees its food programs.
For the past week, however, the district has been sending money that would otherwise be spent on groceries directly to each school for use as it sees fit and to non-profit groups who regularly are in contact with families needing assistance.
She said cash payments can be used, for instance, to purchase grocery store gift cards for families, a move that puts aid directly into the hands of those who need it.
“Yes, there is an emphasis on continuing instruction but the health and wellness of our families does come first,” said Casgrain.
The list of groups and agencies receiving cash for food is long and varied.
“We have 10 First Nations in our district and we provided each with $2,000 for them to use,” said Casgrain in describing one part of the effort underway to provide food for students and families.
Seven of those First Nations are in the Hazeltons, two are in Terrace and one in the Kitimat area.
Other recipients include the Kermode Friendship Centre in Terrace as it serves indigenous people who are not from within the resident First Nations.
And each of the district’s schools received $1,000 to use as they see fit. In Terrace, for example, one school sent its $1,000 directly to the Terrace Churches Food Bank.
Casgrain said the biggest challenge is in the Hazeltons where, she said, the level of unemployment is high regardless of the pandemic.
“We’ve been speaking with First Nations there specifically,” she said.
The Breakfast Club of Canada, a nation-wide non-profit which funnels through donations from corporations to food programs and which largely supports efforts of the School District 82, has given its approval to money being used directly as opposed to providing a school-based lunch and dinner.
“They put out a letter says we can use the money in anyway we see fit,” said Casgrain.
Some students who want food are turning up at schools who then are providing items that were in freezers or otherwise stored away going into the spring break period.
“We’re doing that but not encouraging them to return,” said Casgrain.
She’s also working to slightly shift a program called the Starfish Pack in which backpacks containing enough food for the weekend are sent home with participating students each Friday.
Hosted in Terrace by the Rotary Club of Terrace-Skeena Valley and Coast Mountain School District 82, the Starfish program was introduced here in 2018 and had been supplying food to approximately 70 students.
The backpacks were being assembled at Parkside Secondary as part of the school’s community service program with students there and at two elementary schools, Cassie Hall and Suwilaawks, then taking them home.
But with students not in class, Casgrain is now working on ways to assemble the backpacks and then work with Rotarians and others for delivery to students’ homes.
“We’ll want to have extra food in those backpacks for more than the weekend. The sooner we can do this, the better,” she said.
Casgain’s hoping the backpack program can resume this Friday.