When schools in the Halifax area close because of COVID-19, kids who rely on school food programs may be going hungry.
That’s because the province’s $1-million emergency food fund, announced last week, isn’t available yet. And even if it were, the Halifax Regional Centre for Education (HRCE) still has no plan for feeding kids at home.
Education Minister Zach Churchill announced on Dec. 2 the creation of a $1-million emergency fund for schools to help feed kids in cases where schools move to learning at home. The money can buy food or grocery store gift cards to help families whose kids rely on breakfast programs or other school food programs.
Churchill said the money can be used in cases where a school is closed because of COVID-19 or if schools move to a mix of at home and in-class learning.
“It will help respond to the developing needs of any school community depending on what’s happening,” said Churchill. “So if schools are sent home for a period of time, these funds can be deployed to help students and families that need it during that time.”
Initially during the news conference, Churchill said school regions will lead the programs but the design will come from schools and communities.
But when asked how soon schools will start providing food or gift cards, Churchill said it’s already happening.
“School communities are engaged in this now, so this is just additional resources to help them implement this program,” said Churchill. And the money “will be made available immediately in the system.”
But HRCE spokesperson Kelly Connors says they don’t have access to the funding yet.
“A process to access the fund is currently being developed. (Regional centres for education) will be able to access these funds once the process has been established,” Connors said in an email.
However, the South Shore Regional Centre for Education and the Tri-County Regional Centre for Education both said they have access to the funding.
And when asked if they have access to the funding, Chignecto Central Regional Centre for Education spokesperson Jennifer Rodgers said in an email, “Funding is accessible to all regional centres for education if and when needed.”
The Signal asked the Education Department for clarity on whether the funding was currently available to all regional centres for education. The department did not provide answers in time for publication.
HRCE also doesn’t have any programs for feeding kids when schools are closed and kids are learning from home.
“Regional Centres for Education are currently working with the province around guidelines for feeding students if/when there’s a need to learn at home,” Connors said.
The largest school system in Atlantic Canada, HRCE has 135 schools — 36 per cent of all schools in Nova Scotia.
Nine of the 11 schools that have closed since September because of COVID-19 are part of HRCE. Of those nine, Auburn Drive High School and Graham Creighton Junior High School were closed the longest so far; students were at home for 11 school days.
In the spring when the province closed all schools and kids were learning at home, HRCE worked to “ensure that families who may have relied on school food programs knew how to access food,” Connors said.
A document on the HRCE website lists food resources, such as food banks, available in each high school catchment area. It says the information was last updated on June 9.
A report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives released on Dec. 9 says nearly one in four children in Nova Scotia live in poverty, which continues to be the third highest provincial rate of child poverty in Canada. In the federal electoral district of Halifax, which covers the Halifax peninsula and down to Sambro, the child poverty rate is 28.7 per cent.
Without school food programs, kids go without
Sara Kirk is a professor of health promotion at Dalhousie University and the Scientific Director of its Healthy Populations Institute. She says school food programs are important for the well-being of kids and their learning.
“Healthy kids learn better. It’s as simple as that,” Kirk said in an interview. “And if we provide children with nutritious meals at school, the teachers will say that those children concentrate better in the classroom, they are better behaved, they take information in.”
These programs are particularly important in Nova Scotia.
“We know food insecurity is a big problem in our province – we have among the highest rates in the country.”
In cases where schools are closed, that means kids are going without meals, Kirk said. Ninety-three per cent of schools in Nova Scotia have breakfast programs “and for those children who do rely on that to then suddenly not have breakfast, that’s a big gap out of their nutrition in that school day.”
Rather than “band-aid” solutions like food banks, Kirk says we need to look at things like a universal basic income, which would give people the money they need to afford food. She also thinks we need a national school food program, which would give all children access to free meals at school.
“We need to think about equity, we need to think about the health and well-being of children and youth, and we need to make sure that we can really support families to have access to nutritious food all the time.”