Costs for the New Westminster school district’s lunch program are twice as high as it budgeted for – but the school board is committed to keeping the program going.
The district works with Simply Foods to offer daily lunches in all elementary and middle schools through its 'Fuel Up' program.
Families receive a monthly menu featuring a different selection of hot and cold options each day, and they can opt in to as many lunches as they choose. Full and partial subsidies are available when needed, but the majority of families pay full price for the meals – with 25 cents from the price of a small entrée and 50 cents from the price of a large entrée going towards the cost of subsidies.
The goal is to provide stigma-free meals for everyone; students in a classroom don’t know whose meals are subsidized and whose aren’t.
Over the past year, the district has seen a big increase in the number of families ordering meals – but the increase in full-price meals hasn’t been enough to cover the increase in subsidized orders.
“We’re seeing a real increase in what this program is costing us,” said Tanis Anderson, the district’s vice-principal of early learning, during a presentation to the school board’s education committee on Jan. 18.
In 2020, the district paid out $10,839 in October, $11,292 in November and $7,541 in December for subsidized meals. In the same months, families ordering full-price meals paid $1,005, $831 and $320, respectively, towards subsidies.
By 2021, the district’s costs were up to $18,468 in October, $22,151 in November and $14,751 in December. Family subsidies contributed $1,408, $1,531 and $1,167 in the same months.
B.C. Dairy also offers free dairy products for children receiving a subsidized lunch and reduced prices for everyone else on milk, milk alternatives, yogurt cups and parfaits.
Anderson said school staff make sure families who need the program get connected to it.
“Schools are so much more than these 9-to-3 buildings. These are community hubs; they do so much more than just educate the child,” she said. “We know that when kids are fed, they’re better able to regulate their behaviour, they’re better able to focus, they’re having less issues on the playground. … It’s just so important.”
Trustee Anita Ansari said that, for some parents, the program is a convenience when it comes to lunch planning – but, for others, it’s a necessity.
“Our community is really having a tough go around food security,” Ansari said. “(The lunch program) is getting some of our families through this pandemic.”
School board chair Gurveen Dhaliwal said the program has become increasingly important as more families in the city are struggling.
“It really was the intent of the program that no child should ever be hungry,” she said. “I want to make sure we’re able to actually support this program and support the families of New West.”
Dhaliwal suggested the district might want to look into ways of fundraising to help offset the program costs.
Secretary-treasurer Bettina Ketcham said costs for the meal program come out of the CommunityLINK funding the district gets from the province for a variety of programs to support vulnerable students.
This year, she said, the district set aside about $100,000 of that money for the meal program, based on costs of about $10,000 a month. Now, she said, it looks like actual spending will be closer to $200,000 – which means the district’s general operating budget will have to pick up the rest.
“In future years, the board will have to make some difficult decisions,” Ketcham said, adding the district will need to find “efficiencies” in other areas to cover those costs.
Want to help out?
Anyone who wants to make a donation to help the lunch program can do so via the New Westminster school district's School Cash Online portal. Use the pull-down menu to designate the donation to "Fuel Up School Nourishment Program."
NOTE: This story was updated Jan. 24 with donation information.