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May 25, 2016, 2:08 PM  |  News

Mary is a Grade 6 student at a Downtown Eastside elementary school. She is hungry a lot. For reasons beyond her control, Mary’s parents simply do not have the resources to provide her with a school lunch or full meals on weekends.

She is currently on her school’s subsidized breakfast and lunch program, which feeds her while she is at school, but it is often not enough. It doesn’t cover her dinners, or her food when she is not at school. So she stays hungry. And there are hundreds of Vancouver students just like her.

Nobody likes to hear about starving children, especially in their own city. But it is a big problem in Vancouver. And it is a problem that screams for a solution.

In this case, the solution comes in the form of Community First, a non-profit community organization dedicated to ensuring that children in Vancouver schools do not go hungry when school is not in session. Their innovative and timely new program is called, simply enough, Backpack Buddies. The program exists because “hunger does not take the weekend off.”

Backpack Buddies provides 3 meals a day (in backpacks) for students to enjoy on the weekends. It is a truly pioneering program that currently offers weekend meals twice a month for over 500 Vancouver students. And it is growing rapidly.

Emily-Anne King is the vice-president and co-founder of Community First and the Backpack Buddy program. We sat down with Emily-Anne over coffee in Gastown to talk about the program and the need to feed our city’s children.

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“We listened to what the needs of students really were. We began working with one school.” Emily-Anne King on Alexander Street in Gastown. Photo by Aaron Aubrey

Your organization, Community First, is all about providing food security for Vancouver children. What brought the problem – the fact that kids in our city were going hungry – to your attention?

About five years ago, my mom and I decided we wanted to try and do something for inner city schools. We knew a little bit about the issues faced by children and we were really big into growing food, so that’s what we first set out to do: build community and school gardens. Of course, with the bureaucracy it was a bit of a challenge, but through the whole process, we had some conversations with teachers at inner city schools about the real struggles that their students were facing. And the issue of weekend hunger was brought to our attention. This was something that we had never considered and that not many people think about. So as soon as we realized how big the problem was, we decided to try and do something about it.

It is a very innovative idea – providing weekend lunches for kids in need. How was the Backpack Buddies program born?

We listened to what the needs of students really were. We began working with one school – Grandview Elementary – in 2012. We heard several stories about children in that school and the issues that they faced with weekend hunger. We then explored the greater community of East Vancouver and discovered that there were 18 elementary schools around the Downtown Eastside where there were children who faced the problem of weekend hunger.

So we asked ourselves: “What are we going to do and how are we going to do it?” I went to my old high school – Collingwood – and presented the issue to a bunch of students there. We decided to do a little fundraiser, and it just grew organically from there.

What is really unique about what we do is that through the program kids are helping kids. I really believe that the act is as important as the result. So the kids do the fundraising and learn about issues in their own community and assist others. On the very first week, in the fall of 2012, we delivered 20 backpacks to Grandview Elementary on a Friday afternoon. Every backpack had breakfast, lunch and dinner for both Saturday and Sunday, including fresh fruit and snacks. We went from one donor school and one recipient school in 2012 to having eleven donor schools and nine recipient schools today.

Have you seen first-hand the positive effect it has had on kids?

Absolutely. This fall will be our fifth year in operation, and I have seen the good, the bad and the ugly. And when I say the bad and the ugly, I am referring to some of the stories we hear of hungry children. But the looks on the faces of the kids who receive a backpack never gets old. Overall, it has been an overwhelmingly positive experience.

Is the program mostly set up for East Van schools because they are the most needy?

That is definitely the most obvious area, so that is where we decided to focus our efforts, and it is where a lot of our product goes. But through this process, we have received phone calls from North Vancouver schools, a West Vancouver school, and a Westside school, all of them in need to assistance. We are also in Delta and Surrey. The Downtown Eastside will always be the focus, because there are so many children in need who live there. But there are needy children in communities all over our city who we are open to assisting.

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“The looks on the faces of the kids who receive a backpack never gets old.” Photo courtesy Backpack Buddies.

How are the students in need identified?

Most Vancouver inner city schools have what’s called a Community Outreach Worker, who is tasked with knowing the background of every student in their school. So we work closely with them, and they work with the students and teachers to identify who is most in need. Each school will give us a figure. For example, Grandview Elementary has 90 children who are in need of assistance. So we get that number and then go back on our end and figure out how we are going to feed all of them.

Do you think there is still room for growth? Are there still too many unfed children?

Yes. The most recent numbers identify 2,000 students in the Downtown Eastside who can benefit from our program. And so we are just skimming the surface right now. Every week, I get phone calls from schools around the city, and as far away as Kimberly and Penticton, all saying they need help. There has always been a lot of attention paid to breakfast and lunch programs at schools from Monday to Friday, but that time period from Friday afternoon to Monday morning has never really been considered before. So I really think we are filling a need. In British Columbia, one in five children live in food insecure households, which is shocking.

So we are planning a big expansion this fall. We currently deliver on a bi-weekly basis, and this fall we will be launching on a weekly basis. We are delivering just over a thousand backpacks a month right now, and we are looking to double that. Also, we are hoping to expand to both Penticton and Kimberly, and then move across Canada. That is our ultimate goal.

The third annual fundraiser for the program, the Food 4 Thought Gala, takes place this Friday, May 27 at 7 p.m. at the Settlement (937 Alexander). Musical guests include the Boom Booms, and each ticket includes two drinks and dinner. All proceeds go to Community First and the Backpack Buddies Program. Tickets for the Gala can be found at www.eventbrite.ca/e/food-4-thought-tickets-25181263838

Information on fundraising event: 3rd Annual Food 4 Thought Gala. Friday, May 27 7pm at Settlement Building (937 Alexander). Boom Booms. Ticket includes 2 drinks and dinner. 

By Tobin

Top photos by Aaron Aubrey.

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