It’s the end of an era for Moira Stewart and The Dainty Dish.
The provincially subsidized program provides a nutritious lunch for hungry students – those students who, for financial reasons, find it difficult to bring a lunch to school. The idea is that a good lunch helps students concentrate and become better students in and outside of the classroom.
Stewart has never missed a day, creating and putting together about 450 meals for vulnerable students early every school morning.
However, the partnership between her company and the school district ended earlier this year. After the district made drastic changes to the contract in both the number of meals served and the quality of the food for the fifth and final year, Stewart decided to pack it in.
She said it’s an unfortunate ending to what has been an extremely rewarding partnership.
Stewart said she was given a letter on June 1, 2018 stating that everything would be moving forward for the fifth and final year of the contract, but then on June 17, 2018 the program was slashed.
She said when she tried to reach out to the school district for more information about what was happening in September, it was very difficult to find anyone to answer her questions.
“The stress and not knowing of the last year has been heavy,” she said. “No one was kept in the loop and we couldn’t speak to anyone about it because it was the summer. Come September, we really had no choice but to work with the reductions.”
Eventually, she found out that about 33 per cent of the funding for the program was removed, and initially the district was going to move from serving 450 meals to 125. Stewart got the district to move up to 200 after some prodding.
She said the final year of the contract was difficult.
“We worked with the changes for the final year but had to lay off staff and take pay cuts,” she said. “It’s very sad. We made it work because we wanted to finish out our contract. We’re good at what we do, but the kids just couldn’t benefit with all these cuts. We didn’t want to drop the quality in our food, but they just made so many changes.”
Stewart said it’s disappointing because she feels the meals have positively impacted the lives of local students.
“Everything we’ve done over 25 years has been exemplary,” she said. “We’ve received wonderful feedback from the schools, the reviews have been excellent, the food has been high quality and we’ve done that with a low budget. We’ve had to make many changes over these 25 years because the budget has not gone up, but these last changes were very sudden.”
She said the contract for the program is out to tender now, but she’s not sure if it would be feasible for many companies.
“Now in the contract they want you to use biodegradable products and also pick up all the recycling,” she said.
“We do the delivery, but it was too cost prohibitive for us to pick that up. Just for us to make it work this year we had to take a big cut in salary to ensure the kids get a quality meal.”
Although her run ended on a sour note, Stewart said she loved her job and particularly enjoyed seeing how much the students appreciated the meals.
“When you drive up to a school and there are children waiting for you because they’re hungry and want to be fed then you know it’s important,” she said. “There was one little boy one year that was first in line and by the time he went back into the school after getting his meal he had already finished what we gave him – he was so hungry. We would sometimes sneak him an extra lunch.”
She said some of the kids would also write thank you letters, many of which touched her.
“They would tell us how much better they feel and how much they liked the food,” she said. “Some of them were very funny but some were also sad.”
Stewart said she hopes the program continues because it’s a valuable one with many benefits. She said it appears many of the schools don’t know the status of the program for the fall.
“When we went in to talk to them and other people at the district, I got the impression they didn’t know what was going on with the program,” she said.
“They didn’t know how many lunches we did or just the scope of the program. The schools themselves seem disappointed and they tell me that nobody is telling them anything.
“Losing or reducing this program even more will make it more difficult for teachers. If the school board doesn’t realize that, it’s unfortunate. It seems to be poor communication within the district.”
The News reached out to the district for comments on what happened with Stewart and the future of the program and received the following message from communications manager Kayla Stuckart:
“As is common practice for the public sector, contracts are periodically reviewed and put out to tender to ensure the district is operating in a fiscally responsible manner,” she stated in an email.
“The purchasing department is in the final stages of determining who will be the provider for the 2019-2020 school year.”
Stewart, who will now retire, said it’s a regretful end but that she enjoyed her job.
“If I could continue working for the kids, I would,” she said. “I just want to make life easier for them. The job has been good for me over the 25 years but just the ending hasn’t been positive. I would have liked to have left with a smile on my face.”
She also thanked the program coordinators, the local businesses that helped out, and the students for making her work so rewarding.