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as cost of living pressures bite schools step up efforts to keep food on the table for families
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As cost-of-living pressures bite, schools step up efforts to keep food on the table for families

With mounting cost-of-living pressures, some schools are stepping up their efforts to make sure students and their parents are fed, even outside teaching hours. Schools in western Sydney are forging closer ties with food charities and creating dedicated spaces where families can get emergency supplies. Mother-of-three Kim, who was recently homeless for about a year, relies on her children’s school for many of the essentials. “It’s been difficult, but if I don’t have breakfast cereal in the morning I can go and say, ‘Hey, I don’t have bread, I don’t have cereal’ and they’ll feed my kids, it’s fantastic,” she said. Kim has now moved into emergency housing in the Penrith area, and is thankful to receive groceries from Braddock Public School during such a challenging time. While breakfast programs have long been a feature of schools across the country, Braddock Public School is taking things further. It has opened a new facility known as a flexihub, which includes a kitchen and pantry with emergency food supplies supplied by local charities. It is also designed to be a drop-in space for specialists, such as psychologists and paediatricians. More middle-income families seeking support Braddock Public School principal Alicia Howard said there had been a noticeable shift in the families seeking food relief. “We have a complex school community, and that’s the beautiful thing about our school, but we are seeing more families who you would probably consider in the low-to-medium socioeconomic bracket needing food assistance,” Ms Howard said. “And we are certainly seeing more need for that.” With about 30 per cent of Braddock Public School students identifying as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, the school also has Aboriginal education officers doing weekend and after-school food deliveries. The flexihub will operate alongside an existing community outreach bus service, where staff pick up children from their home and drop them off at school for breakfast. The school’s new community liaison officer Isaac Thompson, who runs the bus service, said it was recognition their responsibility went well beyond the school gate. “We do look at it as a 24/7 job, our minds don’t switch off,” he said. “Obviously we have them for six to seven hours a day but there’s a whole of other time that they need to be supported for.” Mr Thompson is working closely with Penrith Community Kitchen, which has begun installing fridges and pantry facilities in more than 20 schools across the district. ‘We’re just trying to make things better for the kids’ Cathy Craig, who has been volunteering at Penrith Community Kitchen for 30 years, said demand for food assistance was unprecedented. “As a grandmother, and mum of four, I’ve never seen it, I don’t know how they get by,” Ms Craig said. “I understand totally why a double-income family have to send their kids off early in the morning not having breakfast and the schools are now picking up on that and it’s to survive.” Bek Want, who volunteers her time helping parents get their children to school, said the food support was making a big difference. “It’s getting tougher, when it comes to school there are also higher expenses when you’ve got to buy uniforms and all this sort of stuff, and parents are struggling with it,” she said. “We’re just trying to make things better for the kids.” Food support lifting school attendance Principal Alicia Howard said the link between food programs and improved school attendance was clear. “Everyone on staff knows that we can’t get children learning if we don’t address those needs, so having food resources at hand is so important. “That’s our first business of any day, get kids to school, get them fed, get them feeling calm, and then we start having some learning success in the classroom.” Nicole Black, an associate professor at Monash University’s Centre for Health Economics, said food insecurity had wide-ranging impacts on children and their learning. “There’s a lot of evidence to show that if we can ensure that children are healthy, they’re going to skip fewer days at school,” she said. The flexihub model is set to be rolled out to four schools across western Sydney as part of a federal government grant program. With soaring rents and stubborn inflation, the need isn’t likely to subside anytime soon. Campbelltown mother-of-five Rachel Kingi gets fresh fruit, vegetables, bread, and other staples from a local school pantry called Lomandra Community Project. She said families would be lost without such services. “$50 is $50, if that’s all you’ve got left, and to go down there you’d be able to get pasta, spaghetti, meat all within your $50. “Everything’s gone up for me, for five kids. Rent, food and power, if you can’t lock those in and get it sorted, you’re having problems.”

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