Let's get real about poverty in Alberta
Combating the effects of poverty an ongoing challenge for government
A $10 million school nutrition program that’s rolling out provincewide this fall will double next year, said Education Minister David Eggen.
In an interview with the ATA News about the issue of child poverty, Eggen said the nutrition program, which started last year as a $3.5 million pilot in 14 school jurisdictions, has been successful so far.
“We’re monitoring it closely and we’ve seen demonstrable, positive change just from the first round of pilots last year,” Eggen said, adding that participating schools have reported an increase in student attendance.
This year the government has expanded the program to all 61 school jurisdictions and has provided $10 million.
“I believe we are doubling the program again next year,” Eggen said. “That still won’t be enough for every school, but we try to aim for areas of most need.”
When a child comes to school tired or hungry, their ability to learn is affected.
—Greg Jeffery, ATA president
The program enables jurisdictions to target schools within their districts. The idea is to partner with existing programs and community initiatives.
“It will continue to grow over the next year again and I think that it’s a nice way to address our academic ambitions but also our role as community builders and physical and mental health stewards for our kids,” Eggen said.
Alberta Teachers’ Association president Greg Jeffery was pleased to hear of plans to expand the nutrition program.
“More is certainly better,” he said.
“If we can take care of some of those hunger issues in the school I think that’s a positive thing.”
School fees reduced
Speaking more broadly on child poverty, Eggen said the issue is growing in Alberta despite signs that the economy is turning around.
“It’s real. We see a growth in poverty amongst families,” he said.
He noted that schools are often the first point of contact for families that require social assistance and that students coming from lower socio-economic conditions have unique challenges.
“We are always very conscious that we want a strong public education for all students regardless of where they come from and their economic circumstances. That is an ongoing challenge that we seek to meet,” he said.
In the spring session of the legislature, in an effort to help families, Eggen’s NDP government introduced a bill to reduce mandatory school fees by a total of $54 million.
As the program has been rolling out this fall, some boards in the province have complained that Eggen has limited their ability to recover transportation costs for which the government isn’t providing funding.
Jeffery said there have also been some issues around the reporting of planned field trips, but these have been mostly alleviated. He expects that further wrinkles will surface as the year progresses but feels the effort to reduce fees is a positive step.
“We have to treat this like a pilot program because it is the first year of its existence,” he said. “We have to find out where the pressure points are and deal with them as they come along.”
Jeffery also acknowledged the government’s pledge to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour as a progressive move.
“You need to be able to support your family by working a full-time job in this province, not having to have three,” he said.
Despite his support of various government efforts, Jeffery is still wanting to see a comprehensive strategy to reduce poverty.
“It’s clearly an issue that teachers want to see addressed,” he said. “When a child comes to school tired or hungry, their ability to learn is affected. That’s the difficulty that teachers are having in terms of this poverty issue.”
Jeffery doesn’t buy the argument that’s common in some circles that public dollars shouldn’t go into feeding kids in school or other efforts to mitigate the effects of poverty.
“We’ve heard for years the statement ‘It takes a village to raise a child,’” he said. “Maybe it takes a province to raise a child.” ❚
Read other articles from this series on poverty in Alberta