Les Leyne: Volunteers who provide milk, fruit, veggies to schools get funding after all

Update, May 13, 2021: Statement from the Office of the Premier regarding the School Fruit and Vegetable Nutrition Program: The School Fruit and Vegetable Nutrition Program will be funded for the upcoming school year. The Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries, the Ministry of Education, and the Ministry of Health are working together to provide local school meal programs. Further details will made available in the coming days.

Agriculture Minister Lana ­Popham pushes the benefits of eating B.C. produce relentlessly. She’s the last person you would expect to be involved in ditching a program that feeds B.C.-grown food to students.

But there she was this week, going all vague and equivocal on whether a cheap, successful program that gets kids all over the province eating healthy B.C. food will get its funding continued.

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It took two days of questioning in the legislature before she finally hinted on Wednesday that she “thinks” the society that runs the program might get funded.

But the background to the B.C. School Fruit and Vegetable Nutritional Program story makes you wonder where she’s been for the past few months while the government ghosted the society.

Eating local is a motherhood issue by now. Everybody favours it. Same goes for feeding kids healthy food.

So feeding kids healthy local food is as motherhood and (B.C.) apple pie as you can get.

Why the big mystery now about continuing the few million dollars granted every year to a society that does exactly that all over B.C.?

The pandemic restrictions in schools don’t entirely explain the balking.

Opposition B.C. Liberal critic Mike de Jong raised the issue and remarked it was “unbelievable” that it was even an issue.

He said the small society that’s organized the 15-year-old program was told government funding won’t be continued.

Asked why, Popham dodged it with a non-answer. It has been “very valuable” and there have been “discussions on how to find ways to support it, she said.

De Jong noted the past tense and said the B.C. Agriculture in the Classroom Foundation is at its wits’ end.

That brought an even more elaborate non-answer. It’s an “amazing program,” Popham said. It’s been delivering milk and fruit and veggies to schools for years and they’ll be “looking at ways on how to support this type of program.”

This “type of program”?

What about the program itself?

Liberal critic Ian Paton, who’s just as enthusiastically militant about eating locally as Popham, outlined the three months of effort the foundation has put into getting an answer to the question of whether they’re getting funded or not.

Correspondence shows it got its regular grant last March that wasn’t fully spent because of COVID-19 protocols and some school closures.

So it could run until the end of this year. But it needs to sign contracts ahead of time and needs to know now about the $3 million required to put next year’s program together.

The group begged to know by May 10 but is still officially in the dark, unless they can take Popham’s mild encouragement to the bank.

The program is funded by the Health Ministry, so the foundation asked there on Feb. 11. It copied Popham and Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside later and talked to Popham in March. Officials said she promised to talk to the Health Ministry.

Requests continued through April and program officials started telling them the decision was out of their hands and they should talk to the ministers. (That’s generally a bad sign.)

One official said there was no funding, but recommended contacting Popham.

The argument continued Wednesday and Popham adjusted her stance. She said she’s always supported the program and it’s under active consideration by Health Minister Adrian Dix.

The request had to be considered in the context of the pandemic, but: “I think we’ll have some good news soon.”

There’s a wrinkle, however. She said it’s just one program that’s run by volunteers and they’re considering others and looking at other options.

Interim Opposition Leader Shirley Bond said: “It’s time for the minister to stop with the glowing recommendations and actually do something.”

Whatever else they have in mind, it’s hard to picture improving on what’s already in place. The fruit, vegetable and milk in schools program runs with 4,000 volunteers and generous donations from producers and reaches province-wide. It’s a huge return on a minor expense.

Just So You Know: B.C. Liberals dwelt on the fact the funding is the same amount the premier’s office budget increased this year, because of the need for more communications and messaging staff.

Which is ironic, given that the entire government went dark when it came to explaining why it couldn’t say yes or no.

lleyne@timescolonist.com

 

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