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Lunches a hot topic

It takes a village to raise a child, and that is the reason Family and Community Support Services initiated its hot lunch program at Barrhead Elementary School.

It takes a village to raise a child, and that is the reason Family and Community Support Services initiated its hot lunch program at Barrhead Elementary School.

The program was established more than 10 years ago, and has helped provide hot, nutritious meals to students. The idea is, with a full stomach, students will be able to focus more on their studies, said FCSS executive director Gladys Friedrich.

The program was developed by an FCSS worker because some students came to school without a lunch, she said. At first, food was sent to the school from the food bank, which took away from its stores of non-perishable food items for needy families. Then, food was purchased through local vendors. Now, most of the food is cooked onsite, which has helped decrease the cost of the program to parents.

“It has been a really good program, and it has been refined quite a bit over the years,” Friedrich said. “It is run by several paid co-ordinators, and many volunteers.”

Today, parents pay $2.50 per child per day. Spending $45 to $50 on lunches for a month is considerably less than a parent would pay if they were providing their own lunches, Friedrich said. With parents providing the money to the program, co-ordinators seek the best possible deals.

It’s where the food comes from that has raised a few questions among members of the FCSS board of directors. At its board meeting on Feb. 17, several people questioned the fact co-ordinators were shopping outside of Barrhead.

“Perhaps there are too many purchases being made outside of the community,” said board chairman Adolph Bablitz. “If we expect the community to support us, then we have to support them and buy everything we possibly can locally.”

FCSS receives support from Freson IGA through discounts on food, and the Co-op through a dividend set up to benefit the lunch program. Customers are able to tell cashiers they want their dividend to be donated to the program.

The cost of food in Barr-head is more expensive than in Edmonton, and that’s where school lunch co-ordinator Melissa Schwindt has been buying about 46 per cent of the groceries for the program. She told the board of directors that she buys 56 per cent of her groceries in town, but sometimes meat can be twice the cost of what she can find in the city.

“We ask our businesses to give us dollars, and when we don’t support them, then it makes it difficult to ask for that money,” said board director Janet Kaplan. “In the long run, we could potentially lose thousands of dollars for the program, because if we stop supporting them, they’ll stop supporting us.”

Friedrich explained that if all food for the program were to be bought locally, they would have to charge parents more per month, and those parents likely would opt to not continue with the hot lunches. She said FCSS does want to work with the community and support local business, and its goal is to make sure children are healthy at the same time.

She did point out that staff and volunteers are constantly leafing through flyers to find the best deals in town, and when sales are on, they stock up on those items and freeze them for future use. Produce is always bought in Barrhead.

“Parents give us money to cook meals for their children,” she said. “They trust us with their money, and that’s why we try to find the best deals. What it comes down to is being able to provide nutritious, affordable meals that the kids like.”

There are 125 children whose parents take advantage of the lunch program, and because it’s on a month-to-month basis, there can be anywhere up to 180 children being fed a hot lunch. For some parents who aren’t able to afford the hot lunches, subsidies are available to them, and the FCSS has never turned down any request, Friedrich said.

Another issue organizers of the lunch program face is a lack of containers in which to put the hot food. Friedrich said they’ve talked to local vendors about their wholesale purchases, but it would take a $2,000 a month commitment to obtain those containers, and that’s money the program does not have.

“We need to come up with a happy medium to address this situation,” she said.

Barrhead Town Councillor Shelley Oswald, who sits on the board of directors, said staff should meet with local providers and educate them on the situation.

“We need to show them the differences in the costs,” Oswald said.

Town Coun. Roy Ulmer, who also sits on the board, said he is in full support of Schwindt’s cost-saving measures and praised her work.

“(Melissa) has shown initiative to get discounts elsewhere, and I don’t see anything wrong with that,” he said. “She’s using good judgement, and she’s doing a good job.”

While the issue still hangs in the balance as to whether or not all of the food will be bought locally, the board of directors did approve an increase to $1,500 from $1,000 to Schwindt’s budget for groceries. She said there just wasn’t enough money to cover the entire cost. She takes a trip into Edmonton once a month to purchase groceries there, but she does not charge anything other than $50 for gas.