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School closures expose ‘glaring’ gaps in food security for families

When schools in New Brunswick closed more than two months ago, Krista Richard’s first thought was, “What about those kids that depend on us for breakfast and food on the weekend?”

Richard, a phys–ed teacher at Forest Glen, runs before and after school programs at her Kindergarten to Grade 4 school in Moncton’s east end, and even has a program where she fixes up bicycles in her garage and gives them out to students in need.

“I really, really miss the kids,” said Richard in between handing out bagged lunches to her students who are now stuck at home because of the pandemic.

Of the 320 boys and girls at Forest Glen, about half depended on the breakfast and lunch programs, and 70 families received weekly help through a program called Blessings in a Backpack which provides food for the weekends.

Forest Glen School teacher Krista Richard helps to hand out lunches to her “kids” every day. She says it gives her a chance to see students and to connect with them to see if there’s anything they need. (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

When Richard heard about the plan to deliver lunches every day to “high-priority” neighbourhoods, she volunteered right away. 

“They’re my kids and it’s a win-win situation,” she said. “I see them and I’m giving out the lunches but they can also see a familiar face so it’s security for them — seeing that same face all the time — and I can see the families and ask them if they need anything.”

Food inequality exposed 

The idea for the bagged lunch program was born out of a phone call between Debbie McInnis, CEO of the United Way of Greater Moncton, and Heather Stordy, Anglophone East School District’s community engagement coordinator.

Debbie McInnis, CEO of the United Way of Greater Moncton and Southeastern N.B., says the closure of schools has exposed a huge gap in food security for many low-income families. (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

They knew immediately there was going to be a big gap to fill with schools closed.

“Principals and teachers worked really hard to feed kids in our breakfast programs and our lunch programs every day —that need for food hasn’t gone away because schools are closed,” Stordy said.

“It’s really become very obvious the inequality around food security.”

McInnis knew there was a big need, but with 700 bagged lunches now being given out every day in and around Moncton, the demand has surprised even her.

Daniel Bourgeois and Tara-Lynn Pitre volunteer every week to make halal sandwiches in the Inspiration Café for the bagged lunch program. Bourgeois says he’s needed help in the past and his heart is “pretty full” every day he is able to volunteer. (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

“We’ve learned a lot in this pandemic of where we thought maybe there were some gaps but they’re glaringly apparent now,” McInnis said.

Halal meals needed

The bagged lunches include a sandwich, fruit, a granola bar, yogurt and sometimes milk and other treats. Early on however, Stordy heard from Muslim families who were unable to eat the roast beef and ham sandwiches that were being given out.

Heather Story, community engagement coordinator for Anglophone East School District, said when Muslim families let them know they needed halal meals, everyone came together to make it happen. Now 200 halal meals are given out each day. (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

“They were so grateful [for the lunches] but they let us know that they were not allowed to eat the regular meat and we were like, ‘Well then we need to make sure that we get them what they need,'” Stordy said.

Of the 700 meals handed out in brown paper bags each day, 200 are now marked with an “H” to indicate they are halal.

“It really shows how Moncton has changed and grown.”

Junior Kalala, head chef and manager of the Inspiration Cafe where halal lunches are prepared each day, says he comes to work “with a purpose” and is proud to be helping to feed people during this “time of crisis.” (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

‘It does matter’

After going “stir crazy” at home, retired teacher and principal Norval McConnell jumped at the chance to volunteer and provide a “safety net” for families.

“I grew up in a community where the community cared about the kids and I was one of those kids one time, and it does matter. This is a great chance to give back.” 

Norval McConnell and Norma Roberts deliver 200 lunches to three neighbourhoods in Moncton’s east end every day. They wear masks and place the lunch bags on a table, then step back at a safe distance so moms, dads and children can pick them up. (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

McConnell says the experience has shown him how much the need has grown and how much more schools are doing to feed children, just in the eight years since he retired from the classroom.

“It’s not like dinosaurs roamed the earth in that little time — but it’s just that it really has become significant and I think it brings a community together when we value our most vulnerable,” he said.

This elementary school girl returns home carrying brown bag lunches for herself and her siblings. Volunteers give out a total of 700 lunches every day, with 70 lunches delivered at this stop. (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

McConnell and Norma Roberts, who is a bus driver with Moncton Headstart, head out every day to three neighbourhoods where they give out 200 bagged lunches.

Roberts often hears children call out ,”The food bus is here,” when she pulls into her regular spot.

“We have them as young as four coming down to get sandwiches…sometimes I’ll follow them up the street and we’ll put [the lunches] closer to their house.”

Families grateful

Through their face masks, McConnell and Roberts greet every parent and child by name and know how many lunches, halal or regular, they need.

With her blonde ponytail bouncing, four-year old Briella picks up three lunches for her family as her mother watches from from their nearby doorstep.

As a single mom, Sylvie Maltais says the pandemic has made it difficult to get out for groceries.

“Being low income, obviously we don’t have the means to go out when we want to get the food that we need for our children or ourselves so this is a big, big, big help.”

Father of two, Jesse Porter, says the bagged lunches have been a huge help to his family during the Covid-19 pandemic. (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

With two toddlers at home, Jessie Porter says it’s been “very hectic” and agrees the lunches have been a huge help.

“My kids love yogurt — they love the sandwiches.”

The lunches have also included information about other types of assistance available, and activities such as a family scavenger hunt.

Retirement will wait

Krista Richard was planning to retire this year, but has recently changed her mind.

“When schools disappear there’s a huge gap,” she said. “I was supposed to retire and I just couldn’t do it.”

Volunteers Norval McConnell, Krista Richard and Norma Roberts deliver 200 bagged lunches to three Moncton neighbourhoods every day. (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

Richard believes the connections with her students are too important during such an uncertain time.

“I can still see them every day and ask them how they’re doing and what they did on the weekend and if they need anything…that’s the big thing — that connection.”

McInnis and Stordy are already talking with their partners, including the Food Depot Alimentaire, about how to continue serving families this summer.

“One of the expressions I heard years ago is, ‘Once you know something you can’t un-know it,’ McInnis said of the gap in food security that exists.

“We can’t underestimate why it is so important to get good quality food to people who need it.”

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