Rotarian Michelle Owen, left, passes Starfish food bags to Suwilaaks vice principal Roberta Clarke for delivery to students who no longer can take them home from school because of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo courtesy Ron Malmas)

Student food pack demand soars because of school closure

Starfish program now delivers food to students’ homes

The demand for a Friday afternoon take-home student food program run under the auspices of the Rotary Club of Terrace Skeena Valley has soared since the COVID-19 pandemic closed schools.

Compared to providing for approximately 60 students at a small number of schools prior to the pandemic, the Starfish program now provides food packs to approximately 170 students at more schools.

Because schools cannot offer regular breakfast and lunch programs, Starfish took on extra importance at the end of spring break in March when it became apparent school closures would go on for some time, says Starfish coordinator Ron Malmas.

“There is just such a greater need now,” he said.

Just as was the case pre-pandemic, the goal is to provide a nutritious selection of food for a student that can last over the weekend and now, in the pandemic era, every effort is made to bolster the quantity that is distributed.

“Fruit, porridge, pasta … a good variety for a student and to help another,” said Malmas.

A group of volunteers made up of community members, Rotarians and school district support workers gather each Friday at the Parkside gym where bags are laid out, awaiting food items for placement.

“This is a partnership — Rotary, the school district and Save On Foods,” said Malmas, adding that the combination of the three along with the volunteers has resulted in smoothly operating system.

In the past, pack bags could be reused but in these times, that’s not permitted so Save On Foods not only provides food items at an attractive cost, but also sturdy bags each week.

With the increased demand, Malmas puts the weekly cost at $2,500 or $10,000 a month with financing coming from grants, business and private donations and schools themselves who are passing along the money that would otherwise be spent on in-school food programs.

“Donations can be made to the school district, which can offer a charitable receipt, and they flow the money right to us,” said Malmas.

When ready, the food packs are placed in vehicles and delivered by the school principals to their students’ homes.

“They know where it’s needed,” said Malmas. “The goal here is to help kids in need.”

School district official Agnes Casgrain, who looks after the district’s varied food programs, says having school district principals and other school district employees do the deliveries helps maintain confidentiality between the district and families.

“By allowing their family name to be on our list they are sharing a vulnerability with us and we need to hold that vulnerability in gentle hands,” she said.

Casgrain recently spent a day at the Parkside gym helping to pack bags, saying it was an experience that shows what can happen people come together for a common purpose.

“There was a special feeling of camaraderie perhaps grown from the satisfaction people get from doing something that is good and right,” she said.

This is the third year for the Starfish program in Terrace and although it does not normally continue on once school ends, there is consideration for doing that this summer because of the pandemic, Casgrain continued.

“Parkside School will be available as a venue and if what we have seen in terms of volunteers over the last few months is any indication then the work team volunteers will be willing and ready to help out,” she said.

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