A new Brooks Secondary School lunch program for aboriginal students will not only ensure its participants eat better, it might lead to more of them graduating, according to school principal Bill Rounis.
Tla’amin director of finance Steve Hunter announced on September 25 that the first nations government would start a new food-assistance program at the high school.
“It’s not just first nations kids who are going hungry,” said Hunter. “Lots of kids are, but unfortunately we can’t pay for the whole school.”
The Tla’amin program provides students with a food card that allows them to spend up to $24 per week in the Brooks cafeteria. Approximately 30 Tla’amin teenagers attend the school.
Tla’amin hegus Clint Williams said his government is always looking for better ways to support first nations children who attend Powell River schools.
"We're trying to give them any help we can so there's one less stressor, one less fear that does not need to be there,” said Williams. “We’re just trying to do subtle, little things we hope will make a big difference for some of the students.”
Tla’amin has a strong history in providing similar support. For the past four years the nation has provided complete funding for the James Thomson Elementary breakfast program operated by the school’s parent-advisory council. Prior to that, the first nation organized breakfast for students at Ahms Tah Ow School in Tishosem. That breakfast program, which is open to use by all students at the school, costs the nation approximately $1,000 per month.
Hunter said that Tla’amin is working with Assumption School to develop a similar program. The Brooks program was not included in Tla’amin’s 2017 operating budget, but after the need was identified the local government made the necessary budgetary changes to allow for the additional expense, he added.
School District 47 secretary treasurer Steve Hopkins said a variety of community-sponsored programs at schools throughout the district address the issue of student hunger.
“They look a bit different at each school,” said Hopkins, “but every school has something.”
Hopkins said every school has food available if students are hungry, although it is not something the school district specifically allocates funds for. While there is a reasonable expectation most students coming to school have eaten, some have not, he added.
Hopkins said if schools do not have a parent or community-supported program, they have at least been directed by Powell River Board of Education to ensure some food is available.
Rounis said the Tla’amin program has been added to other programs designed to help Brooks students who are marginalized by poverty find academic success. Tla’amin students are able to pick up their weekly card at the Brooks library on Monday for use throughout the week.
"We do have a lot of kids who for one reason or another are getting two meals here," said Rounis.
Students who are hungry are less able to focus on their learning, he added.
Williams said he does not think all Tla'amin students will use the program or that everyone will need it, but it is in place to help them all succeed.
Similar to the rest of Canada, the graduation rate for first nations students in Powell River is much lower than the rate of non-aboriginal students who complete high school. Across the country, only about one in four aboriginal students graduate from high school, while nine out of 10 non-aboriginals complete grade 12. Statistics from 2014/2015 for School District 47 show 46 per cent of aboriginal students graduated compared with 78 per cent of non-aboriginals.
Rounis said the program will help school administrators gain a better understanding of reasons why aboriginal students are less likely to attend classes.
“What the nation is doing is making sure food is not the issue why kids aren't coming to school,” said Rounis.
Food produced in the Brooks cafeteria is not the average fare of the deep-fried fast food found at most North American schools; it includes nutritious options prepared by the school’s culinary arts program members, said Rounis.
Culinary arts program assistant Lori Alexander said the cafeteria has used the punch-card system, which is open to all students, for several years and it has worked well.
"It's like carrying cash or a debit card," said Alexander.
The cafeteria does not have a debit-card system because the cost to operate it would have to be added to the price of food sold to students, she added.
Punch cards are sold at the Brooks office for $24 each and do not expire. Meals such as pasta with meatballs and cheese-bread cost $6, said Alexander.
The school community is grateful for the community support for food programs and while the issue of student hunger is not new, Rounis said he commends Tla’amin for stepping up.
“The money that Tla'amin is putting in is significant,” said Rounis. “It’s about the same as we would put over a number of months for a whole bunch of kids. That’s awesome.”
The school’s main goal is to improve student attendance, which will aid course completion and ultimately bring students closer to graduation.
"Our core business is making sure kids graduate,” said Rounis.
Since the program started on September 25, Rounis said he has seen more students eating at school and knows they are healthier because of the lunches.
"I'm super excited about the program and I've seen the benefits already," he said. "I also know this is just the beginning."