Number of students accessing school lunch programs in Nanaimo nearly doubled since March

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The number of students accessing meal programs in the Nanaimo-Ladysmith school district has nearly doubled since March, but organizers said they are not sure the pandemic is completely responsible.

“It’s hard to say whether it’s a direct correlation to COVID and job loss or is it that these are families struggling all along and COVID really highlighted the fact that many families are living so minimally as it is,” said Crystal Dennison, executive director of the Nanaimo-Ladysmith Schools Foundation.

Around 1,200 students access regular meals provided by the Food4Schools program, up from the 650 who used it in March, according to Dennison. Volunteers began bringing food into schools in September last year, which was a shift from each school running its own program. 

After schools closed because of COVID-19, Food4Schools volunteers began delivering food hampers to replace meals students used to receive at school. Around this time the program began receiving requests from families whose children attended schools not previously included, and expanded from 16 to 32 schools. The deliveries continued through the summer, until the program began dropping off food at schools again in September. 

Just over eight per cent of students in School District 68 access school meal programs. In Qualicum School District 69, it is under five per cent — that number did not increase a lot after the pandemic began, but the district’s superintendent thinks it could tick up in the coming months

“I still expect that there may be more vulnerability in the community. Families have been hit hard economically. We know that and our school administrators and councillors and others are very attuned to the needs of families,” said Dr. Keven Elder, superintendent. 

Around 200 students access School District 69’s meal program — sourced from donations, many from local businesses. There are also about 50 families who benefit from a program that provides food to prepare meals with over the weekend. Every Friday, a child will take home a backpack full of food and confidentially return the empty backpack on Monday, according to Elder. He said the program focuses on providing food to create healthy meals, rather than snacks. 

“We couldn’t do this without the support of our community partners,” said Elder. 

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