The largest school division in Winnipeg is putting together food hampers to make sure thousands of students who rely on school meal programs don’t go hungry during the pandemic.
“We’ve never done this before, so we’re going to learn as we go,” said Karin Seiler, superintendent of education.
Seiler created the division’s “Food Security Initiative,” which will help feed more than 3,200 students and their families during the time of COVID-19.
When schools first closed in March, the division started giving away food they had leftover from its meal programs. More formal planning started soon after the province announced classes would be suspended indefinitely.
“We do support families on a regular basis with food and nutrition, so we knew that many of our families would miss that support,” said Seiler.
Families ‘anxious’ about food security
Principals in the division sent names of students they thought could benefit from meal help during the pandemic. The list is already at 3,200 students and growing, said Seiler, who was a principal in inner-city schools for 20 years.
“I can only imagine how anxious families are to try and provide food,” she said. “We’ve always been very responsive to the needs of communities around nutrition, so it just makes sense that we do this.”
The division is gathering food and resources from partners like Winnipeg Harvest, Peak of the Market and the Child Nutrition Council of Manitoba. It’s also ordering food from distributors who normally supply them with items, such as milk, for their regular meal programs.
Hampers ‘meaningful work,’ says teacher
Once the food is collected, it will go to one of two commercial kitchens in local schools: R.B. Russell Vocational High School or Technical Vocational High School.
From there, school division staff will make some food, like soups and breads, and assemble about 150 hampers every day for at least two weeks.
Staff are welcoming the work.
“Without students in the building, without that direct contact with students, a lot of teachers are feeling a bit of a void,” said Matt Frost, a culinary arts teacher at Tec Voc.
“To be able to do something meaningful when we’re at a distance from our students is a great thing for teachers, educational assistants and everyone in the school division.”
School principals will be organizing how families get their hampers, said Seiler. Some families will get a scheduled pick up time at their school, others will get deliveries. Seiler said school division bus drivers, as well as some volunteers from the Boys and Girls Club of Winnipeg, will be dropping the hampers off.
Divisions learning from each other
School divisions across Manitoba are faced with the same challenge — feeding hungry students.
That’s why the province has put together a committee with school division representatives to tackle the issue. Seiler said the goal of the committee is for regions to learn from one another.
Seiler said the division has about $200,000 to use to purchase food for the program.
The province has funded meal and snack programs for schools in the past, and a provincial spokesperson told CBC News in an email that any money the province normally puts toward meal programs is now being used by school divisions to offer nutritional support to those who need it.
School division health and safety officers are making sure physical distancing is happening while assembling hampers.
Seiler said she’s been speaking with a nutritionist from the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority to make sure everything is safe.
While the program is set to officially start on Monday, Seiler said the division has already delivered some emergency hampers.
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