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Status of school meal programs tenuous as prospect of COVID-19 lingers in Nunavut

Making sure students are fed to enhance their ability to concentrate and learn has been a focal point for Iqaluit schools, at least it was prior to COVID-19.
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“Making sure kids are fed makes all the sense in the world and it does help, for sure,” says Doug Workman, chair of the Iqaluit District Education Authority. Pixabay photo “ ᓇᓗᓇᐃᖅᓯᓂᖅ ᓱᕈᓰᑦ ᓂᕆᑦᑎᐊᕐᓂᖏᓐᓂ ᑐᑭᖃᑦᑎᐊᖅᐳᖅ ᓄᓇᕐᔪᐊᒥ ᐊᒻᒪ ᐃᑲᔪᓲᖑᕗᖅ, ᐄᓪᓚᕆᒃ ,” ᐅᖃᖅᐳᖅ ᑕᒡ ᐅᐊᒃᒪᓐ, ᐃᖅᓯᕙᐅᑕᕆᔭᐅᔪᖅ ᐃᖃᓗᖕᓂ ᐃᓕᓐᓂᐊᖅᑐᓕᕆᓂᕐᒧᑦ ᑲᑎᒪᔨᐅᔪᓂ .

Making sure students are fed to enhance their ability to concentrate and learn has been a focal point for Iqaluit schools, at least it was prior to COVID-19.

Breakfast and lunch programs for the upcoming year remain in question due to the pandemic, acknowledged Doug Workman, chair of the Iqaluit District Education Authority (IDEA).

“Right now, I’m not sure how much of a lunch program we’re going to have at the high school, given the COVID situation,” he said. “I’m hopeful that we’re back to pre-COVID.”

All schools under the IDEA’s jurisdiction offer some form of breakfast program, made possible by funding from multiple agencies and, periodically, individual donors.

Inuksuk High School’s hot lunch program is available for about half of the days throughout the school year. Approximately 150 students take advantage of it, according to Workman.

There had been talk of having a full-time kitchen devoted to student meals but “things kind of went sideways” with COVID-19 emerging, he said.

Although the virus shut down meal programs at the schools, Workman credited Jason Rochon, a student support assistant at Joamie School, for his tenacity and innovation.

“He was like Superman. He put his cape on and he raised money locally to have breakfast — like a grab bag for kids at Joamie School, and then later it was in front of Nakasuk School,” he said, adding that it caught on at the high school as well. “(Rochon) had some help from different school staff and parents, and the DEA donated money to his cause as well because it was such a great idea… Jason’s idea was well-received in the community and it was appreciated.”

Workman also spoke highly of home economics teacher Lael Kronick, who was instrumental in getting the high school lunch program rolling a few years ago.

Chair of the IDEA since 2015, Workman said school meals are generally accepted as beneficial to student learning.

“Making sure kids are fed makes all the sense in the world and it does help, for sure,” he said. “They still have a lot of people — as they have people in the south — who are falling through the cracks.”

As a former teacher in Nunavut for decades, he recalls periods when he oversaw breakfast programs in various communities, such as in Pond Inlet in 1978, but there were other stretches when it didn’t seem to be a priority.

Iqaluit Manirajak MLA Adam Arreak Lightstone has repeatedly raised the issue of school meal programs in the legislative assembly over the past couple of years. He has implored the Department of Education to ensure that all schools across the territory are offering breakfasts and lunches to students.

“I hope that one day we will see the minister come forward with good news on that front,” Arreak Lightstone said in March. “For the record, I do believe that in order to address Nunavut’s education issues, it is essential for every school in Nunavut to have a universal government-funded food program (for) breakfast, lunch, snacks, and I hope that one day we will get there.”

He pointed out that Yukon secured $4 million annually through the Jordan’s Principle Child First Initiative to establish food programs in that territory’s schools. He asked Nunavut Education Minister David Joanasie last year to see if a similar arrangement could be put in place here.

Joanasie admitted in March that “we haven’t made any new headway” on the issue, explaining that COVID-19 consumed most of the department’s resources.

“We have been trying to see how food programming in schools operates through the pandemic, and so I think this is an ongoing area that we’ll have to keep our eyes on and seek support in, whether it’s other departments, agencies, or local community organizations,” the minister said.