Teachers support universal meal plan

By: James Bedford

“Begin at the beginning, and when you come to the end, stop.” — Lewis Caroll, Alice in Wonderland

With the provincial election in the rear-view mirror, Manitobans are poised for either more of the same from Brian Pallister’s Progressive Conservatives, or, given what the provincial auditor has shared about our lack of fiscal crisis, perhaps something of a fresh start. I am by nature an optimist, and would like to believe our finances present certain opportunities for flexibility.

However, I am also a realist. Big changes in direction are not terribly likely; but maybe, just maybe, there is reason to believe the government’s thinking has evolved in terms of what children need to succeed at school.

Most of us attended public schools either here or elsewhere, and most of us would say that experience contributed greatly to the lives we’ve lived. Our early understanding of numeracy and literacy, community and fairness, heartbreak and triumph are inextricably linked to our schooling. The importance of this foundational experience cannot be overstated— it guides a process of self-discovery and the realization of academic and personal potential.

Yet the specter of poverty in the form of food and shelter insecurity, family instability and transience erodes that foundation for many Manitobans. That reality diminishes, if not thwarts, the fulfillment of potential. Sadly, this is nothing new. Manitoba is a longtime leader in the rankings of child poverty across Canada — at best a dubious distinction and at worst a shameful abdication of our responsibility to the most vulnerable among us.

Yet here we are, as the premier approaches his second term in office, with reason for both optimism and anxiety. Optimism, that he may grasp the extraordinary opportunity before him to meaningfully address the core challenges faced by many Manitobans. And anxiety, because to ignore those realities is to turn our backs on our children, on our future.

If the K-12 Education Commission and the government it reports to are in fact willing to lay the groundwork for improved economic and social opportunities for all, they can truly turn the tide on the tsunami of child poverty in this province. In doing so, the premier will realize the improvements he seeks, in reduced reliance on social programs and costly health-care services, lower crime rates and better academic outcomes.

A universal meal program in schools would be a good start. It’s the Manitoba Teachers’ Society’s No. 1 recommendation to the Commission.

Manitoba’s teachers are wrestling with more than test scores as they endeavour to be educator, psychologist, social worker, nurse practitioner and more to a growing number of students. As the K-12 Commission prepares its report, I remain hopeful that it will recognize the connection between poverty and academic outcomes.

I am hopeful as well that it recognizes the opportunity our schools present, when properly and equitably funded, to be catalysts for profound economic and social improvement.

This government is well-positioned to create real, positive, enduring change for Manitobans. Let’s hope it starts in our classrooms. After all, what better place to begin, than at the beginning.

James Bedford is president of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society.