Phoenix breakfast program thrives

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Phoenix Elementary School students are starting every day right thanks to community members who stepped up to keep the school’s breakfast program running amidst the pandemic.

Donations of funds by local businesses and nonprofit organizations have meant that a healthy hot breakfast can be served to all 40 students in the school, every morning of the year. And, participation by local community partners has meant meals can be safely made and distributed without adding to COVID-19 risks. 

The program may not have run this year if not for a concerted effort to make it work. It was in fact initially cancelled in September as school principal Dan Sparanese was forced to make tough decisions around school safety plans.

Calico Chang, a public health nurse who became the healthy schools lead for School District 64 in September, learned the breakfast program was being cancelled through school parents, including parent advisory committee chair Hannah Daneswood. Chang and Daneswood were determined to look “outside the box” to get the program back.

“With food security and learning in mind we knew how important it was to provide kids with this option: future investment, in a nutshell,” Chang said.

The program is vitally important to students in need, but it has also become an integral component in building the small school’s sense of community. The organizers initially created the program to include all students so that no one would feel singled out. It quickly became an enjoyable and important start to the day for everyone. 

As Chang explained, PAC fundraising had formerly funded the program and it was run by the school’s long-time educational assistant Susan Garside and some parent volunteers. Students would also help prep in the school’s kitchen. 

With COVID-19 risks to consider, Sparanese wanted to avoid putting staff at risk by handling dishes and also wanted to limit children congregating and sharing food. 

However, need for the program had not evaporated, and likely only grew.

“The 2015 Census shows the average income of Salt Spring Island families is $10,000 less than the national average, Vital Stats estimates groceries are 10 per cent more costly, and rental increases are staggering, if one can find housing,” Chang explained.

“This trifecta leaves families with little choice in how they can provide. COVID-19 has created lengthy lines and families with little time are less inclined to shop for healthy food.”

Chang and Daneswood brainstormed a plan to meet Sparanese’s concerns by using off-site kitchens to prepare grab-and-go breakfasts so kids could eat outside as soon as they arrived. 

“This idea fulfilled everyone’s requirements. We just needed money and people,” Chang  recalled.

Their appeal to the community this fall netted some great new partnerships and extended some important existing ones. In the past, Jenny and Jason Coles from Barb’s Bakery donated food once a week, and Country Grocer donated funds every month. Both businesses have continued to lend this support to the program. With Barb’s taking care of Wednesday’s breakfast, new partner Mila Besiata from the Salt Spring Wok Company committed to making hot breakfasts for the school on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. 

A Salt Spring Foundation grant of $7,500 plus $1,000 in COVID emergency funding from the organization helped get the program off the ground, along with a generous donation from Hayward’s Funeral Services. The Salt Spring Baptist Church also contributed and the Lions Cub has funded the school’s fruits and veggies program, which brings down meal costs.

Parent volunteers pick up and deliver the meals to students outside the school every morning. 

“It has been a hit. I’ve heard of kids who were dragging their feet, not wanting to go to school, and are now psyched to get in the car in anticipation of their breakfast sandwich,” Chang said.

The organizers now have enough funding to cover the full school year but are already planning for next September’s needs. Anyone can donate and help sustain the program.  Breakfasts cost $3 per child, so $100 can provide 33 meals for local kids and $1,000 can provide 333 meals. Donations can be made to SD64, attention Breakfast Program, and tax receipts are available.

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