A country tomato vegetable soup is prepared for schoolchildren on Monday. The soups ingredients of cabbage

Doling out bowls of hope along with hearty soup

What started as a volunteer project for local ex-offenders has evolved into one of the province's largest school feeding programs.

What started as a volunteer project for local ex-offenders has evolved into one of the province’s largest school feeding programs. At Bowls of Hope, feeding kids is about nurturing upstanding future citizens and keeping them out of the justice system. The organization is gearing up for its annual fundraiser in May.

The Bowls of Hope Society has been feeding Chilliwack schoolchildren for a decade. This year, 600 students across 17 schools, levels kindergarten to secondary, will receive a daily lunch at school. That’s 120,000 bowls of soup for the year, explains Mike Csoka, one of the directors. The program is growing fast, as last year there were only 12 schools and 450 students.

Inside the Chilliwack Community Correctional Centre’s industrial kitchen, Chef Mike* creates full-bodied meals that were evaluated by a dietician as being nutritionally complete. The meals are usually vegetable and meat stews, with a side of whole wheat bread. The chef serves the soup piping hot into large plastic containers, for delivery in a donated van. On Fridays, students receive special meals, such as hot dogs, or macaroni and cheese. A former resident of the halfway house, Mike completed UFV’s chef training course, and is working to become a professional cook. He spends about 20 hours a week with Bowls of Hope.

“It’s really close to my heart and giving back to the community. I never realized just how many kids out there don’t have food, whether it be breakfast or lunch,” says Chef Mike.

38 per cent of people using food banks are under 18, according to Food Banks Canada. And Statistics Canada data shows that British Columbia had the nation’s second worst child poverty rate, at 14 per cent, in 2010.

“I think the big benefit is, if you’re not hungry in school, you can pay more attention. I remember just forgetting my lunch. When your stomach’s growling, you’re not paying much attention to what’s being taught,” says Mike.

That is the essence of the program, as Csoka discovered in his thirty years with Federal corrections.

“What I’ve come to realize is that, it’s great to work with these adults when they committed crimes and they’re trying to re-enter the community. But the reality is, we could’ve done something to not have them in the justice system.”

Feeding kids in school is one of the simplest ways to encourage learning, says Csoka, and that can keep them out of trouble. Indeed, a research student at the University of the Fraser Valley found that Bowls of Hope participants showed improvement in their language arts and math performance, and in their behaviour.

“This is the basis for keeping kids in school, on the right path, so that they avoid other problems later in life,” says another program organizer, Cindy Waters.

McCammon Traditional Elementary School was one of the first to sign up when Bowls of Hope launched. Today, out of the school’s population of about 250 students, 20–30 receive a daily free lunch. The school also runs a smaller-scale breakfast program.

“I think it’s terrific. I think it introduces kids to food they may not have tried before or they think they don’t like. It gives them nutrition they can always count on every day,” says Donna Babcock, program administrator and Aboriginal education assistant at McCammon.

The program goes a long way to giving students their daily recommended fruit and vegetable servings, which nationwide two-thirds of children aged four to eight do not receive, found a 2004 Statistics Canada survey.

At the start of every school year, the school sends a note to parents asking if they would like their child in the program. There is also a gentle request for a donation.

The program’s students eat lunch together in a separate room, where Babcock recreates a fine dining experience with a student leader at each table, background music, and sometimes flowers. She is creative in encouraging students to try new foods.

“They have to have as many bites as their age. I used to do that with my kids at home. It worked very well.”

Babcock says that there is no stigma that follows kids in the program. Instead, the soups are a coveted lunch. On hot dog Fridays, there are suddenly many students who have forgotten their home-packed meals.

“So long as it benefits the kids, I wouldn’t want to see it change,” says Babcock.

Kids in the program cover the whole spectrum, and Csoka has never turned a school away. About 50 people volunteer to make it all happen, bringing the cost of a bowl of soup down to 33 cents. With the free workspace at the correctional centre and donated transportation, the program has zero overhead, says Csoka. There is no plan to incorporate the program into the school district, as the organizers would like to keep it volunteer-run.

“We can all point figures and say it’s somebody else’s problem. That’s an easy way for the village to do nothing,” he says.

In Chilliwack’s school district, nearly three-quarters of schools have some kind of lunch program, half provide a breakfast program, and about 70 per cent provide snacks.

“This is an exemplary example of the community working together for its children,” wrote Superintendent Evelyn Novak in an email. “We appreciate the support we receive from our partners as we recognize some of our students come to school who have not had anything to eat, and this affects the ability for these students to optimally learn.”

The society will hold its annual dinner and auction fundraiser on May 3, 2013. The goal is to raise the $40,000 annual budget. The event is sold out, but Bowls of Hope is still accepting donations of money, products, or services, for the live and silent auctions. For more information, people can call the Chilliwack Community Correctional Centre.

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