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New West school lunch program sees ‘staggering’ growth

More New Westminster kids need subsidized lunches than ever before. So how’s the district going to pay for it?
Making sure all students have nutritious lunches is the goal behind the New Westminster school district's Fuel Up program.

The number of subsidized lunches being ordered in New Westminster schools has now outstripped the number being paid for — and that has the school district looking for ways to make sure its lunch program remains viable.

In the 2022/23 school year, the district is expecting to serve up 89,015 lunches through its Fuel Up lunch program: 39,579 of them paid and 49,436 subsidized.

“This obviously speaks to a growing food security issue,” said Rick Bloudell, SD40’s manager of community projects and partnerships, at the school board’s Feb. 7 operations committee meeting. “But we also want to explore how we encourage more families to order lunches for their children.”

The Fuel Up program began in February 2019. Families in all elementary and middle schools 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.

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.

SD40 lunch program has seen 'staggering' growth since 2020

Bloudell said the growth of the program has been “staggering.”

In 2020/21 — the first school year that wasn’t interrupted by COVID — the program served up less than half the number of meals it’s providing this year. In that first full year, 17,422 of the 41,151 meals were subsidized, or 42 per cent.

With the balance now shifting towards subsidized meals — about 55 per cent of the meals this school year, according to school district projections — the program is now costing the district more money.

It’s expected to cost the district $316,000 in 2022/23, including the cost of staffing and meals ordered through the local catering business Simply Foods.

The district has lined up more than enough money to cover the costs for this year, with $200,000 from regular provincial CommunityLINK funding (provided to help school districts help vulnerable students), $150,000 from this year’s B.C. Student and Family Affordability Fund (a special one-time fund from the B.C.  Ministry of Education to help offset the rising cost of living), and a $140,000 grant from the Vancouver Sun Children’s Fund’s Adopt-a-School program.

Secretary-treasurer Bettina Ketcham said any unused money from the province, both CommunityLINK and affordability funding, can be carried over to next year to help keep the program going.

Bloudell noted the district will continue to reapply for the Adopt-a-School funding in future years.

School District 40 is also looking at ways to try to help increase the number of families who take part in the program, and it recently surveyed families to get their feedback.

Among families’ suggestions were to offer simpler meals that would resonate more with kids, to provide more culturally diverse options, and to offer more options to cater to dietary restrictions (such as vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free selections).

Families also suggested making it easier to order the meals.

Bloudell noted the district meets regularly with Simply Foods to work on the program, and the company has committed to enhancing menu choices and streamlining its ordering system.

After spring break this year, it’s also moving towards providing sustainable packaging.

Find out more about School District 40's Fuel Up lunch program

You can find all the details about the program, including how to order, how to apply for a subsidy and how to make a donation to support the program, at SD40’s Fuel Up webpage.

📢 SOUND OFF: Do you use the New Westminster school lunch program? How does it help your family? Send us a letter.

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