Whitehorse feeds its hungry students

Sometimes something as simple as an apple is enough to calm an upset student, says Jim Tredger, principal of Jack Hulland Elementary School.

Sometimes something as simple as an apple is enough to calm an upset student, says Jim Tredger, principal of Jack Hulland Elementary School.

Elijah Smith Elementary School principal John Wright agrees.

“Well, I know what I’m like when I don’t eat and the kids are no different,” he said.

“It’s especially important for the younger children who don’t always know what’s wrong with them.

“They can’t tell if they are hungry, they just know they feel crabby and not well.”

Through Yukon Food for Learning, both schools offer programs to nourish hungry students.

Children at Elijah Smith can walk in the doors before classes and sit down for a wholesome breakfast of toast, fruit and juice.

And Jack Hulland students who need nourishment can help themselves to slices of fruit and vegetables.

The program, which was started in the mid-‘90s, provides healthy food to schools to ensure that children are being properly nourished.

It’s part of the nationwide Breakfast for Learning initiative, supported by the Canadian Living Foundation.

It receives $40,000 in funding from the Yukon government and $70,000 from Breakfast for Learning.

The program was started at Whitehorse Elementary School but has expanded to include all Yukon schools.

Some Yukon rural schools are doing innovative programming, including making soup and sandwiches for hungry students.

And kids in Carcross have been making smoothies out of frozen fruit and yogurt.

The schools get grants based on reports submitted to the program’s committee.

The reports might be menus that include fruits and veggies or even bagels and cheese.

“They subsidize their own program or completely fund their own program through moneys that we distribute to all the schools,” said Yukon Food For Learning vice-chair Sheila Rose.

“The stress is on healthy food, and they send us their potential menu and then we have a co-ordinator/dietician who goes over the menus and makes other suggestions so that their food choices are healthy.

“We kind of laugh because we have this Cheez Whiz crowd out there and we kind of have to pull them back and say ‘Geez, it’s not cheese.’”

The healthy component of the program is stressed.

Real cheese is served, the bagels and toast are whole-wheat, the juice is sugar-free and there is often milk to accompany meals.

The program is not just for needy children.

All kids are encouraged to eat if they are hungry; this way there is no stigma attached to eating the school’s food.

“We do this for many reasons,” said Rose.

“Some children don’t have access to breakfast supplies, others just aren’t ready to eat that early in the morning.

“It’s a universal program in that as we administer the program it’s open to all children, but often it’s children who require the food who attend and get it.”

The need for food in Yukon schools is no greater than the need for food in schools across the county, said Rose.

However, the Yukon is better funded.

“Our food supplies are more expensive up here — our fresh vegetables, our fruit,” said Rose.

Like in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, “the portion of the funding to the territory reflects the distance the food has to travel.”

Although Yukon Food for Learning has only been around for a decade, the need for food in schools has been going on much longer.

“Often teachers had food that was available to students but this is a more organized approach to it — one that is focused on healthy and nourishing food and creating a very supportive and engaging atmosphere in the schools so that children sit down and enjoy eating with each other,” said Rose.

“Often staff members join in, so it’s a very pleasant time, not a stigmatizing time, not a time that is a burden.

“Sometimes they meet their teachers this way in a different situation than in the classroom and it helps create those bonds.”

About 35,000 volunteers staff Breakfast For Learning programs across Canada.

“It’s really parents helping parents,” said Rose.

“Often they say that feeding children is a parental responsibility, and so is children being involved in sports and physical activity, but we also know that there are a lot of volunteers in that area to make sure children have physical activity and there are a lot of parents and volunteers to make sure children have healthy food choices as well.”

Despite being heavily funded, the program is always looking for more donations, funds and volunteers.

Breakfast for Learning, the Yukon’s parent organization is the leading national non-profit organization in funding child nutrition programs is schools.

“Canadian children deserve what children in all other industrialized countries already have — a national child-nutrition program,” Martha O’Connor, executive director of Breakfast for Learning, said in a release.

“Children who are well nourished have improved memory, better problem-solving skills and creative abilities.”

On January 17, O’Connor presented the organization’s case for a national program along with federal MP Olivia Chow in Ottawa, at a conference launching the Children’s Health and Nutrition Initiative.

“Our mission is that all children attend school well-nourished and ready to learn,” said O’Connor.

Unlike the United States and the United Kingdom, Canada has no federal policies to set standards and provide funding for a national child-nutrition program.

“At a time when the rate of obesity among our children is skyrocketing and study after study shows our kids aren’t consuming enough of the right nutritious foods, we need to take the next step,” said O’Connor.

Last fall, Breakfast for Learning gave Canada a “C” grade on nutrition for school children.

“It’s more evidence of the need for a national program,” said O’Connor.