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Hunger persists in Comox Valley despite historic school food program funds

Food security experts question rollout of Comox Valley Schools’ Feeding Futures money

Food security for families is an ongoing issue in the Comox Valley and beyond. The Record is compiling a series on the subject, focusing on school programs and initiatives. This is Part 1 of the series.


Despite a historic investment of $214 million in food programs by the province, parents across the Comox Valley are increasingly struggling to feed their children.

The Feeding Futures funding, initiated by B.C.’s Ministry of Education, allocated $3.42 million over three years - $1.14 million annually - to the Comox Valley school district (SD 71).

Upon receiving the funds in September 2023, the district was tasked with providing meals for a minimum of 20 per cent of its students, with 30 per cent of the food sourced locally within the province.

The government’s decision came after years of lobbying from non-profit groups advocating for the development of a universal food program. As of today, Canada remains the only G7 country without such a program.

Despite this good news, many families still haven’t seen improvements.

Last August, the Record reported that the Comox Valley Food Bank noted a 64 per cent increase in service users in 2023. More than 34,000 people crossed the organization’s doors - 30 per cent of which were children below the age of 18.

For Caroline (named changed for privacy), a self-employed single mother of three, every week presents a challenge to put food on the table for her family and make ends meet.

“I’m just watching the (food) prices go higher. Milk, along with other things, is the most recent (item) I’ve taken off our shopping list,” said the mother. “We buy meat if it’s on sale, but typically even at sale prices, it’s expensive. (It’s challenging to find things) the kids will eat and I try not to overload them with cheap foods.”

Alexandra (named changed for privacy), a mother of two autistic children with strict dietary restrictions - one has celiac disease, the other has type one diabetes - faces similar struggles.

“Yesterday, I paid over $700 for two weeks of groceries and that probably won’t last us the full two weeks. We’ll still have to do smaller shopping. That’s a lot of money and not a lot of people (can afford this.) Even for me who’s working 30 hours a week, that’s a lot.

“My husband and I definitely struggle. A good amount of our income (goes to) gluten-free and diabetic-friendly food. We pretty much eat what’s left over. We don’t get to have our choices and what we would like to eat. We don’t go out for drinks or special food.”

Both mothers recognized the presence of food programs in their children’s respective schools but mentioned having difficulties in knowing about and accessing them.

Alexandra, who works as an SD71 educational assistant told the Record that she has not noticed any improvement since the funding was announced last April, nearly a year ago.

A first step

On Jan. 30, SD 71 released a report highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of its schools’ food programs, along with recommendations for investing Feeding Futures’ money.

The document determined that 16 per cent of the region’s 8,817 students, across 22 schools, benefit in some way from nutritional support.

For SD 71 superintendent Jeremy Morrow, things are progressing smoothly and according to plan.

“It’s been great as a new superintendent to the Comox Valley to observe the incredible work (of) volunteers (and) committed staff to provide food at our schools already,” said Morrow. “This additional money is going to really amplify some of the great work that’s already existing in the district.”

RELATED: Back to school with new Comox Valley School District Superintendent

As the food scan briefly detailed, nearly $700,000 from the Feeding Futures funding has already been spent (see graph for breakdown).

This breakdown of the Feeding Futures budget for SD 71 shows where the money has been spent so far.

“More money will be given to schools this year than ever before for food so (people) should be seeing that change now,” said Morrow. “For example, we provide food outside of school hours and we also have Good Food Boxes… for students and their families on the weekends.”

However, Morrow pointed out that despite these significant investments, some improvements may not be visible as one of the focus of the food programs is on providing stigma-free services.

In the meantime, the superintendent emphasized that the funding would be allocated transparently.

“(That $1.14 million will) almost entirely go to food,” said Morrow. “The way in which the account will be spent will be made public. I can assure everyone that more food will be in our students’ bellies for sure.”

The Record reached out to an SD 71 principal to know more about the Feeding Futures funding but was redirected to the school district’s communications department, which declined to provide additional information.

House of cards

According to the SD 71 report, food programs are “mostly powered by volunteers and (lacks any kind of) central co-ordination.” Schools without dedicated cooking facilities therefore depend on the help of intricate parent-led initiatives and external non-profits, all working independently from the district.

Acknowledging the efforts of dedicated parents and volunteers, local farmer and former Parent Advisory Council member Arzeena Hamir claims that the current decentralized approach adopted by SD 71 is inherently precarious.

“One of the main issues with many of the parent-run programs is that they all rely on volunteers. It’s not a sustainable model because it’s getting harder and harder for parents to volunteer their time,” said Hamir. “They have to work and the cost of living has gone through the roof. To be able to volunteer means you have a high amount of privilege.”

Having co-ordinated the Valley’s first salad bar, she observed an issue with the SD 71 that she said persists to this day.

“When we saw the Feeding Futures funding coming, we were so happy. But then (we were wondering) what was going on with the money,” said Hamir.

“(Ever since SD 71 received the funding), it’s just been radio silence. The school district doesn’t communicate very well (and) has a very difficult time collaborating with the community. I think that it has been (this way) for at least the last decade.”

Currently sitting on the Comox Valley Food Council, Hamir welcomed the province’s investment but remains concerned about the district’s willingness to effectively funnel this much-needed funding to existing initiatives and organizations.

The advocate’s apprehension stems from what she perceives as an absence of “clear direction” and “clear leadership.” She further noted that while food programs aren’t part of SD 71’s mandate, they are the ones in control of the Feeding Futures funding.

Morrow confirmed this statement.

“I understand that the government wanted to give each school district the flexibility to spend the money (according to their) community’s needs, but they gave little to no instruction… and there’s no consistency across the province,” said Hamir. “A school district like ours seems to just have so much resistance to new things. They’re not increasing their support to schools… and they’ve taken (nearly) a year to figure out what’s happening.”

Hamir questioned why SD 71 didn’t adopt a more targeted and collaborative strategy to increase funding of successful initiatives and non-profits while focusing on implementing new programs in schools lacking the latter.

Game-changing funding

For local non-profit LUSH Valley, renowned as one of the region’s leaders in food security efforts for the past two decades, access to this funding could mean the difference between thriving and struggling.

“We haven’t received any of the Feeding Futures money. Since September, the school district has been giving us sort of month-to-month funding for our Good Food Box program… but we’ve been waiting for a plan,” said Maurita Prato, LUSH Valley’s executive director.

“We want to continue (providing) our services and care for the students, but it’s quite challenging to not know whether or not we’ll be able to continue.”

According to Prato, the past few months have presented the most financially challenging period in her seven-year tenure at LUSH Valley.

Since Morrow was appointed last summer, she has made numerous attempts to meet with the school district, but in vain.

“I’ve been asking to meet the superintendent since he started - and I understand he’s very busy - but I think that would help (us to know that) SD 71 values their relationship with LUSH Valley,” said Prato. “We already have a phenomenal partnership with the Indigenous Education (Department)… but again, clear, open, and transparent communication would be very helpful.”

With money from the Feeding Futures funding, the executive director said LUSH Valley could develop a comprehensive food program, increase the number of meals delivered, upgrade its facilities, and provide additional support to parent-led initiatives, among numerous other things.

In other words, make the non-profit a one-stop shop in the Valley for food-related initiatives.

“The idea is to be sort of a centralized facility; a hub that brings all the schools up to a certain standard and offers a wide spectrum of services that support each school on an as-needed basis,” she said.

Ultimately, as noted by Prato, the Feeding Futures program all boils down to providing food for the children. While there may be an initial learning curve for the organization, she is confident that any level of funding, combined with their expertise, could go a long way in achieving this goal.

“We’re a small organization and they’re a large bureaucracy. What might be a small decision for them could be a (game changer) for us.”


In the second part of this series, we will explain how SD 79 collaborates with a local food security non-profit to provide nourishment for students.