While our school district has been feeding children in our schools for years, I am still occasionally surprised by the magnitude of the endeavor. Sadly, the number of children who regularly come to school hungry has been steadily growing over the last few years.
Hungry children are distressed children. Research in the field of neuroscience (and common sense) tell us that depriving the body of nutrients has a significant impact on brain development, and consequently one’s ability to learn. We should not be surprised that children who come to school chronically hungry demonstrate more inappropriate behaviours, are more inattentive, and are more likely to exhibit negative interactions with peers and their teachers. If you have ever been hungry for an extended period of time you will know what I am talking about.
If there is a silver lining to these challenging circumstances, it is the fact that our community has risen to the challenge by helping to feed the scores of hungry children in our schools. Our School Meals Program provides over 450 student lunches every day. It is augmented by donations from many generous contributors, both individual and corporate. Most notable of our benefactors is (the late) Dennis Carter. Some of you may remember Dennis. He drove around the district in a wheelchair with his dog Muffy and collected pop cans. I was humbled a few years ago, by the fact that he created a $10,000 endowment fund (“Dennis Carter & Muffy Fund”) to augment the Meals Program! Donations come in from multiple places within the community. More recently, the school district was given $17,000 by Sevenoaks Shopping Centre to feed our kids. Some of you may also know about the district’s Breakfast Program, which is a partnership with a number of churches that have ‘adopted’ several of our schools. It is a simple but effective approach. Volunteers from a given church select a day of the week, purchase and prepare all the breakfast goods, arrive early in the morning at their adopted school, and serve it for children as they arrive at school. Many school PACs also organize a breakfast club to cover the rest of the days. This has been underway for a number of years, and has helped countless children. It is a great way for our kids to start the day.
The most notable of our community’s endeavours has been the Starfish Backpack Program. It is a significant and far reaching partnership which has been organized by the Rotary Club of Abbotsford. The program extends the support for our needy children into their homes by equipping them with a backpack full of food to take home on weekends. It has grown as a consequence of need, but also because of leadership and teamwork in our community. I was thoroughly impressed by an elementary student who recently raised over $8,000 for the program. Over 260 students are regularly supported through the Starfish program, and it continues to grow, in Abbotsford and in other communities.
One cannot overestimate the significance of these initiatives on the lives of our students. Students who are well fed will engage more consistently in school. They will learn more deeply. Brain research also tells us (and this is not-so commons sense) that the brain is much more plastic than we previously believed. In other words, if you “change the experience, you change the brain.” A well-nourished brain thinks more clearly, and facilitates more connections, learns more deeply. One of the interesting offshoots of these initiatives, as you can well imagine, comes from the fact that eating a meal is also a very social endeavor. These meals programs also change the conversations around the tables (and desks). You talk, tell stories and laugh with friends and family over a meal. You learn how to interact, communicate and connect with others.
I am grateful to all our community members along with district staff who have stepped forward to help feed our children. It makes a big difference in their lives. It is a reminder to not underestimate the power of a full stomach, or the commitment of a community to its children.
Written by Kevin Godden, Superintendent of Schools/CEO, Abbotsford School District