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Jack Knox: Nourish Cowichan tries to ensure no child goes through school day on an empty stomach

The Times Colonist Christmas Fund has helped to fund the work of Nourish Cowichan

It’s Thursday morning and half a dozen women are busily at work in the big kitchen attached to ­Duncan’s École Mount Prevost.

A couple of the volunteers are making breakfast cookies, another is cooking waffles, and three are cutting loaves into hundreds of individually wrapped slices.

All the food is packed with healthy ingredients — squash, ­carrots, oats, apple and so on — albeit ground up and cleverly disguised. Some of the kids who will be eating this fare wouldn’t usually see a lot of fruit and vegetables, wouldn’t naturally reach for them, so these nutritious-but-delicious munchables are made with that in mind.

Welcome to Nourish Cowichan, a community-driven non-profit that tries to ensure no child goes through the school day on an empty stomach. Every weekday volunteers produce snacks, breakfasts and lunches that go out, for free, to 20 Cowichan Valley schools where staff have identified 1,253 students as being in danger of going hungry.

Some of the neediest kids get groceries to carry them through the weekend, too, though this food must be of the kind that a nine-year-old can prepare unsupervised, as there isn’t always an adult around to do it for them.

It would be nice to say that the need is lessening, but that’s not the case. The kitchen, in space donated by the school district, runs about 50 hours a week, with close to 60 regular volunteers rotating through, augmented by occasional helpers from businesses, schools and the like. An adjacent storage space (which on this day features dozens of boxes of donated oat flour) is no longer big enough.

Three years ago, Nourish’s annual budget was $200,000. Then the pandemic hit. “Now we’re approaching the $1 million mark,” says Fatima Da Silva, the organization’s executive director and executive chef. Rising food prices create a double-whammy: not only are they pushing more families into territory where they need help, but it’s costing Nourish more to help them.

That’s a challenge. Da Silva says there’s lots of local support (example: a farmer showed up with a thousand pounds of fresh tomatoes a couple of weeks ago) but it’s hard for the non-profit to keep up to demand. Money is always an issue.

Thank goodness, then, for the Times Colonist Christmas Fund.

Or, to be more precise, thank goodness for the readers who donate to the newspaper’s annual charity drive. Their generosity last Christmas allowed the fund to make a good-sized grant to Nourish.

The grant was, in fact, something of a happy aberration. Usually, all the money collected by the Times Colonist fund — generally in the area of $300,000 each year — goes to the Salvation Army and Mustard Seed Street Church to distribute, mostly via groceries plus gifts for the kids, to people in need at the holidays. In the last two years, though, readers were so overwhelmingly generous that there was enough money to distribute to not only those two groups but others, as well. Readers’ contributions were so generous — close to $1 million last year! — that it became possible to issue grants to organizations, mostly food banks, that hadn’t received them before.

Money went to groups helping Ukrainian refugees, Victoria Women’s Transition House, Esquimalt Neighbourhood House, the Rainbow Kitchen….

So much for my pessimistic prediction that people would grow less generous, not more, during the pandemic. I was happy to be proven wrong.

This year? It would be nice to say that there will be enough money to spread around again, but that has yet to be determined. This season’s Times Colonist Christmas Fund appeal just began yesterday. Maybe this time, with all the talk of recession in the air, people will back off again. Or maybe they’ll surprise me, figure their neighbours are hurting, and step up once more.

We all have our own causes and our own capacity to support them, so if you are not in a position to give, that’s fine. But if you do have the ability to help spread the cheer, it would be appreciated.

jknox@timescolonist.com

HOW TO DONATE TO THE TIMES COLONIST CHRISTMAS FUND

You can donate by going to the Times Colonist Christmas Fund fundraising page. The site is open 24 hours a day and provides an immediate tax receipt.

Or mail a cheque to the Times Colonist Christmas Fund, 201-655 Tyee Rd., Victoria, B.C. V9A 6X5.

You can also use your credit card by phoning 250-995-4438 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Friday.

>>> To comment on this article, write a letter to the editor: letters@timescolonist.com

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