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Folk singer lends name to program giving healthy food to rural N.S. children

HALIFAX — A Nova Scotia folk singer is lending his name to a program that provides healthy food to students at rural schools in the province, saying he wants to raise awareness about an often invisible problem.
Nova Scotia folk singer Dave Gunning is shown in a handout photo. Gunning is lending his name to a drive to raise funds for a program that provides food to rural children in need of healthy food. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Dave Gunning **MANDATORY CREDIT**

HALIFAX — A Nova Scotia folk singer is lending his name to a program that provides healthy food to students at rural schools in the province, saying he wants to raise awareness about an often invisible problem.

Dave Gunning's music has included tunes such "Coal From the Train" — co-written with artist Bruce Gouthro — with lyrics describing how Gunning's grandfather would shovel coal from his passing train onto the properties of people struggling to heat their homes in Pictou County.

Now, the Pictou County recording artist is becoming the sponsor of a funding drive to set up centres — referred to as School Free Stores — that will stock rural schools in Nova Scotia with food and necessities. He says he intends to push for the cause as he tours folks festivals around the country, adding that the song about his grandfather will give him a chance to mention the fundraising drive. 

"It ties in perfectly with the cause. If everybody shovels a little bit of coal from their train, they can help out," he said in an interview Tuesday.

The Rural Communities Foundation of Nova Scotia, which operates the program, says child poverty in the province is most acute in rural areas. Statistics Canada data for 2020 says the child poverty rate was 26 per cent in Annapolis county, 27 per cent in Digby county and 22 per cent in Cape Breton's Victoria county. The figure for the urban Halifax county is about 16 per cent.

Gunning said he started to appreciate the problem when his school teacher wife, Sara Delong-Gunning, told him about children lacking healthy lunches at her Pictou County school. Like many of her colleagues, she was regularly bringing extra food to work to feed kids.

"Every now and then we have to kind of lift our heads up and look around and see how many people are struggling," he said.

Teacher Jessica Fancy-Landry said in an interview Tuesday that at a rural school in New Germany, N.S. — where she was the principal — about 500 students were using the food program in recent years. Fancy-Landry, the chair of the Rural Communities Foundation, said she's observed a growing need for the non-profit's school program.

"The fact of the matter is that kids are coming to school and their bellies are hungry, and as an educator there is action that does need to be taken," she said.

Lesley Frank, co-author of the 2022 report card on child and family poverty in Nova Scotia — published by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives — says the longer-term solution is to boost the incomes of parents and caregivers.

Frank, a sociologist at Acadia University, said Tuesday in an interview that as long as all levels of government don't address a "patchy" social safety net in Nova Scotia, programs such as the School Free Stores will remain a "stopgap" solution.

"School workers and parents and volunteers and community members are filling the gap and the cost of food is getting more and more expensive," she said.

The report Frank co-authored said child poverty numbers in Nova Scotia dropped to 18.4 per cent in 2020 from 24.3 per cent a year earlier — largely due to pandemic-related financial assistance boosting the incomes of poor families. But when the pandemic ended and the payments stopped, income and food insecurity returned, especially in rural areas, she said.

"We have income assistance rates that keep poor families about $15,000 (annually) below the poverty line," she said.

Still, she praises Gunning for supporting the wider cause of raising awareness of food shortfalls. "Hopefully, this drives home the need for wider solutions," she said. "It's cracking open the stories of peoples' everyday lives and letting other people see them."

A spokeswoman for Nova Scotia's Department of Community Services said the government has taken steps to reduce child poverty. In an email, Christina Deveau noted there was an $8-million increase to the Nova Scotia child benefit for the 2023-24 fiscal year, adding that new rates took effect July 1.

In the last two years, the annual payment for families at the lowest income level has increased by $600 per child, to $1,525, she wrote. There was also a $3.5-million increase in supports for children with disabilities. 

However, the province has faced criticisms from anti-poverty groups for its latest budget, which froze most welfare levels at current rates despite more than year of high inflation.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 4, 2023.

Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press