No child should be expected to learn on an empty stomach, and yet an estimated 3,000 Langley students go to school with no food in their bellies and no bagged lunch.
It’s a reality that surprised Brookswood mom, Shannah Berge, and moved her to action last year.
In the beginning of the 2014 school year, the Parent Advisory Council at Alice Brown Elementary decided to put on a hot breakfast for the whole school.
Berge, who has two boys at the school and is part of the PAC, was fairly new to Langley and a chef by trade. She offered to organize the breakfast day.
She got Save-On Foods on Fraser Highway to donate the food and even help serve it to the students.
The kids loved it, lining up for eggs and bacon.
But then something happened.
Following the hot breakfast, the students had to sit in the gym for an assembly.
“The kids were so well behaved. They didn’t fidget, or fall asleep or act out. The difference was they weren’t hungry; they were fed and content,” said Berge. “It was seeing that difference in the kids that set the wheels in motion for me.”
Berge went home that evening and started crunching numbers for offering a hot food program at her kids’ school. That’s when a commercial came on about a breakfast program.
“I thought, ‘we could do this,’” said Berge. She called the Breakfast Club of Canada and applied for a grant.
The Breakfast Club of Canada teams up with community partners and regional organizations to develop solutions adapted to local needs. Today, the Breakfast Club of Canada helps feed some 150,000 students in 1,328 elementary and high schools across the country.
Berge’s grant request was accepted and now the Club funds 50 per cent of the yearly $6,000 budget for the breakfast program at Alice Brown, as well as providing appliances to help the volunteers cook the daily meal. The Breakfast Club has several community businesses that support their goals including Cobs Bread. Breakfast for Learning also contributes funding to Alic Brown.
Breakfast Club of Canada helps bring breakfast to seven Langley schools including Nicomekl Elementary, HD Stafford Middle School, Brookswood Secondary, Shortreed Elementary, Betty Gilbert Middle School and Aldergrove Secondary.
According to Langley School Foundation’s Susan Cairns, the need to feed hungry students became apparent nearly a decade ago. She started looking into it and seeing how many kids, one in six, come hungry to school. The shocking truth made the Foundation switch its focus. Now it is undergoing its own Food For Thought campaign with a lofty $300,000 goal to help support breakfast, lunch and snack programs throughout the district.
At Alice Brown, an average of 50 kids from a school population of 250 utilize the breakfast program every morning.
“The whole mood of the school changed,” said Berge. “Kids are happier, teachers are happier because kids are able to pay attention and aren’t acting out.”
Berge points out that we all get “hangry” (hungry and angry). But kids don’t have the maturity to understand or contain those emotions, which end up spilling out on the playground and in the classroom.
Principal Debra Page is blown away by the change for the better in her school.
“The kids are way more settled, ready to learn,” said Page. “Seeing how much good and the sense of community that has come out of the breakfast program gives your heart a flutter.
“If it wasn’t for Shannah and all her hard work this wouldn’t be the success it is.”
This year, Berge had to step away from volunteering full-time in the mornings but is still involved.
Now, Special Education Assistant Susan Hildebrand has taken over the breakfast program.
Volunteers from the community and within the PAC make the program work. One wall in the room is plastered with drawings and notes of thanks from the students.
Grade 7 student Jordan VanVeek began going to the breakfast program from its start. She loved it so much she asked to volunteer. Now she is there nearly every day serving food to her fellow students.
“I like helping out and getting to know the younger kids,” said Jordan.
Not only are kids getting a nutritious morning meal, which always includes one vegetable or fruit, they have become a community, socializing and looking forward to seeing each other, said Page.
Moving to Brookswood, a neighbourhood with nice homes and parks, Berge thought she had moved to middle class suburbia.
But in fact, she learned there are many families living in poverty. There are single parents living in basement suites, families struggling with two jobs and no time to make lunches.
“You never know people’s situation,” said Berge. “We had been in a tough financial spot ourselves, so I really had to learn how to stretch out the grocery budget. It can happen to any of us.”
Several parents have come to thank the principal, some crying because they are so grateful for the breakfast program.
“Many parents are too proud to ask for help. But with the breakfast program, it’s open to any student because we didn’t want to segregate them. The kids that use it regularly have gained friendships and look forward to seeing each other in the morning,” Berge said.
Seeing the change in her kids’ school makes her want to implement her breakfast program in other schools. She has created a colour-coded, meal planning binder that could help expand her program into more schools in need.
“These kids are our future. We have to give them the best possible start we can,” she said.
Alice Brown Elementary Grade 7 student Jordyn VanVeek prepared a warm breakfast for a younger student during the school’s Breakfast Program last week. VanVeek enjoyed the before-school program so much she wanted to give back. She has been volunteering since last year.
– Monique Tamminga photo