The children are hungry. The church volunteers can barely keep up.
We’re not talking about a far away, underdeveloped, poverty-stricken country.
We’re talking about our children, in Alberta, the land of wealth — although clearly not for everyone.
How can it be that the richest province in Canada has thousands of children going to school every day hungry, without a lunch?
If it weren’t for the good souls trying to tackle the problem, all of these kids would be trying to learn on empty stomachs.
The provincial government leaves it up to churches and other non-profits to provide. But being hungry in school isn’t a problem unique to Alberta — it’s happening across Canada.
And Red Deer is no different than anywhere else. Five days a week, all school-year long, volunteers at the ministry of Loaves and Fishes make, put together, bag and deliver lunches for about 300 school children who would otherwise go hungry.
At this time of year, when the phone rings at Loaves and Fishes, it’s often another parent or school official discreetly asking for help for a child who has gone to school more than once without a lunch. What happens to these kids when school is out, like on weekends and holidays?
“If our hearts weren’t here, we wouldn’t be,” Pastor Christine Elliot says about the major task they undertake.
According to most recent statistics provided by Public Interest Alberta, at the end of 2012 there were 84,000 children living in poverty in Alberta.
A conference in Red Deer on Saturday, Oct. 4 at Gaetz United Church will bring people from across the province together to work on a strategy to end hunger in the classroom.
One of the organizers, Carolyn Pogue, is a member of The Child Wellbeing Initiative, which was formed about seven years ago by a group of United Church of Canada women in Alberta.
The church is also involved with the Inn From The Cold program that offers homeless people a warm bed for the night during the winter.
At first there were only single men sleeping in the churches, said Pogue, an author from the Calgary area. But over the years they have seen more women — single women, pregnant women and women with children seeking shelter in the winter.
“We’re thinking, ‘What is going on here? This is unconscionable.’ ”
They learned about Lethbridge teachers bringing food to school to feed hungry children. A closer look revealed it was happening across Alberta.
What Pogue finds frustrating is that there’s no overall plan by government to look after impoverished Alberta children.
A child may be lucky enough to attend a school where volunteers and churches offer lunches. But what about the kids who don’t live near such a school, or who are too embarrassed to say they are hungry but whose behaviour and learning is poor?
“Government says we are doing this, this and this. And we’re saying, ‘That’s good. Good for you but it’s not enough.’ We charities, we can’t fulfil the need. We need a bigger umbrella of help.”
“I don’t get why people aren’t outraged when they learn that these kids are sitting in classrooms trying to learn with an empty stomach.”
When she talks to people about the issue she hears, “It’s not my problem. It’s the parents’ responsibility to feed the kids, therefore they have stupid parents.”
“So am I to go to a six-year-old child who’s sitting there in Grade 1, wiggling or falling asleep, and say I’m so sorry I can’t feed you because you’ve got stupid parents, or addicted parents or sick parents or absent parents or whatever the reason is. You can’t do that. How can we live with that? Those are our children.”
The solutions to ending hunger in classrooms include a living wage, enough affordable housing, and more affordable daycare spaces, says Pogue.
“Because we’re rich and because we’re young and because we’re smart we should be able to lead this country in dealing with this problem.”
She sees a ray of hope with the arrival of Alberta’s new premier, Jim Prentice. In the first meeting with the premier, Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson raised the issue of children in poverty and affordable housing.
For Pogue, it’s all about raising awareness, and she feels hopeful when public figures are talking about the issue of child poverty.
As for the upcoming conference in Red Deer, Pogue says every MLA has been invited. She’s not sure if any will attend.