Saskatoon Public happy to partner with Tribal Council initiative to feed families
Ask anyone with relatively close connections with schools in Saskatoon–among other centres in the province–and they would knowingly agree that nutritional needs can be a daily challenge for many students.
Now, toss in the far-reaching effects of a global pandemic and all the financial hardship that can add to the equation. Therefore, it is not overstating when referring to this as a crisis.
Few are more acutely aware of this than Chief Mark Arcand of the Saskatoon Tribal Council. Building on what has become a strong alliance with Saskatoon Public Schools, this was a natural fit. While it has been a staple at White Buffalo Youth Lodge to provide meals for delivery, the facilities simply were not sufficient to meet demand since COVID-19 became a daily reality.
This was borne out due to a recent survey spearheaded by the STC that identified no less than 435 households who needed as many as 1,500 lunches and suppers every weekday. This is triple the number of meals White Buffalo had been supplying.
The result, with the co-operation of Saskatoon Public Schools, was to transform the large commercial cooking facilities at Mount Royal Collegiate into a production line-type provider since there were no longer students to feed every day. It also meant redeploying staff from other school kitchens to pitch in.
“Mount Royal checked all the boxes as far as we were concerned, and we knew that with some of our inner city schools like Princess Alexandra having to close, we really needed a commercial kitchen. We knew the need was high,” Arcand said.
While he may have known this grim reality intuitively, it was confirmed when he spent eight hours in front of a computer going through the anonymous requests for families signing up for the program. He labelled the need as “overwhelming.”
“When STC realized the increasing needs in the community, they asked us for in-kind support, which we’re happy to provide through use of our facilities and staff. We’re proud to help our community in this time of need. We truly feel we are better together,” offered Saskatoon Public Schools Superintendent of Education Brent Hills.
“I think it’s fair to say a lot of people might be surprised, but we know how many students we feed each day at our schools so we knew the need was there. I’m just thankful STC took the initiative and it’s very unfortunate, but it’s been a concern for decades and now this really accentuates the need,” Hills said.
Carolynn Arcand, who is the community school coordinator at Pleasant Hill Community School, is another who is well aware of the situation and cited the fact that 95 percent of those students who attend the school are provided with breakfast and lunch.
“I think when something like COVID-19 hits, it probably makes people a lot more aware of how great the need is. At a time like this a lot of our families can’t leave their home and don’t have access to the supports they need; the fact we’re able to deliver these meals to their doorstep is huge, and it’s a chance for us to offer some form of support to our families,” she added.
Quite aside from Saskatoon Public and the STC, those involved have lauded the overall support of community partners such as Federated Co-operatives Limited in terms of providing funding and volunteer help, including many teachers (both active and retired).
Arcand underscored that, for many families who have applied for this program, their plight is compounded by the fact that they often tend to lead what he referred to as “vulnerable lifestyles,” which can be harmful to their immune systems. He said the ability to provide much-needed nourishment cannot be overestimated in terms of importance.
“I don’t mean that to sound negative, but there a lot of families who for one reason or other are facing this situation and they deserve the same sort of chance as the rest of us. So, we need to step up and try to do our part,” Arcand said, adding that ethnicity doesn’t enter into the equation “because people are still people.”
From her perspective at Pleasant Hill, Arcand marveled at how resilient families are but added that the underlying poverty issue has changed considerably since the virtual lockdown has taken effect.
“Poverty is looking very different these days and people’s lives have changed so much. You might have one or both adults having lost their job and the world has changed. We need to work together on this.”
Arcand is the de facto pit boss at Mount Royal, having drawn up schedule rotations in which three teams of 10 operate the facility while complying with all the requisite physical distancing practices.
“It’s been a feat in of itself, but everyone is doing a great job of pulling together and we know that there is no rest; it’s go time. It’s been a good experience for doing event planning,” she chuckled.
The elephant in the room, which everyone is well aware of, is what will happen at the end of June when the “school year” ends. Those who work in the kitchen, including Arcand herself, are 10-month employees. While she said that is something others will have to wrestle with, Hills and Chief Arcand are cautiously optimistic some sort of solution can be found, even if that might not be the current scale.
“Obviously a lot depends on funding, but we know that the need won’t just go away and that’s the reality,” Chief Arcand confirmed.
All three concurred that anonymity has been a critical factor in the program’s success, noting how members of STC pick up the food at Mount Royal and deliver to doorsteps with no information provided other than addresses.
“It is totally confidential and that was something we stressed right from the start,” Chief Arcand said.
Having vast experience from her own school, Carolynn Arcand added, “we’re lucky in that we have built relationships and trust with our families and that takes some of the fear out of being stigmatized. No one wants to be that person, but sometimes we all need support from our community,” she stressed.