Vancouver School Board mulls changes to its food programs for vulnerable children

Partnerships with the food industry to train students remain off the table

Kids need to be fed in order to focus at school. That’s a fact everyone can agree on.

But the Vancouver School Board’s food services are much more complicated that just feeding hungry children. The district has 15 different nutrition programs at 119 sites, runs seven teaching cafeterias and oversees 30 commercial kitchens, a report commissioned by VSB staff found.  

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The report calls for changes to those programs, but board chair Janet Fraser wants everyone to know no decisions have been made yet. Trustees decided Monday evening to put off a vote on whether to go to public consultation until December. If approved, decisions would be made in the coming months, perhaps by June.

Thousands of hungry kids are fed every day in VSB schools, sometimes breakfast, sometimes a hot lunch and sometimes a delivered meal. Those meals are provided in 32 Vancouver schools in neighbourhoods identified as vulnerable.

The report recommends changing the hot lunch program, in which meals prepared in house by VSB staff, to a delivered meals program.

The money saved could feed about 340 more children every day, the report says. That’s good news, as long as the program remains stigma free and the food is nutritious and delicious. Today, families pay what they can, and money is collected in envelopes, which are often returned empty. That system likely means some children whose families can afford to pay are eating for free, but it also ensures that children whose families cannot afford to pay are not singled out. That anonymity is important to maintain.

In addition, each year about 500 secondary school students are trained — at seven Vancouver high schools — in culinary arts to eventually become red seal chefs.

The report recommends reducing the number of schools offering chef training to two, plus building a possible “centre of excellence” and contracting out the work in non-teaching kitchens.

Why? Apparently fewer students are choosing to take the culinary arts program, and the kitchen facilities need at least $250,000 in immediate repairs and millions more in ongoing upkeep.  

Years of tight budgets have left school kitchens in disrepair, with two of them, at King George and Total Education secondary schools, closed because they were unsafe, the report says.

To be clear, secondary schools still have foods classes, where students learn how to cook.

It’s ironic that our city’s restaurants are crying out for workers, but students are not choosing this field.

Students do learn about career options and the labour market, said Aaron Davis, VSB director of instruction in school services. But their parents want their children to go to university, he said.

“A lot of our parent population don’t always see the appeal of working in the trades,” Davis said.

Meanwhile, there are thousands of restaurant industry jobs going unfilled, in our foodie city, a 2018 B.C. Restaurant and Food Services Association report says.

“In line with the world-wide shortage of skilled chefs and cooks, British Columbia suffers from a lack of qualified professionals due to the reputation of long hours, low pay and a challenging culture,” the report says.  

The high cost of living and low unemployment exacerbate the shortage.

But the BCRFA lists as a long-term solution that it should “actively foster… careers in restaurants and encourag(e) young people to try their culinary skills.”

The BCRFA and VSB might want to work together on this — Davis said there are already partnerships in existence.

“We do have highly innovative teaching programs in our school where we partner with industry in a variety of industrial fields,” Davis said. “So, it would be something that absolutely we would we would be interested in pursuing if there are partners that are willing.”

Trustees have not yet accepted the report’s recommendations. Rather, they will vote on whether to seek public opinion on the district’s food services overall, before making any decisions.

“We want to remain education focused and feed hungry children,” Fraser said.

Earlier this year, I wrote about two in-school programs where students grow their own food to feed their communities. Thankfully, those programs are not part of this report and would not be affected if changes go ahead.

VSB should not consider any changes that would add a stigma to children receiving free meals at school or reduce the number of students receiving meals at school. That’s a no-brainer. As far as the training programs go, an innovative partnership with the food industry might be able to keep a vibrant training program alive in as many schools as possible.

Note: This story has been updated since first published.



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