For children relying on school lunch programs, going hungry over the weekend can be a fact of life. For those who don’t have to worry about food budgets, or choose between buying groceries or paying rent, this is hard to fathom.
The Starfish Pack Program is a weekend food program for kids experiencing food insecurity that operates through Rotary Clubs across British Columbia. Carmen Larsen, a family doctor and mom of three (ages 16, 11 and 7) founded a branch of the program in Vernon, B.C. Because of this effort every Friday 72 kids go home with a backpack filled with two breakfasts, two lunches, two dinners, snacks, and fresh fruit — a life-changing act for the kids and their families. We spoke to Larsen about the program, and how she’s involved.
Why did you start doing this?
The Starfish Pack Program started in another community in BC back in 2013, and is operated in conjunction with a Rotary Club. That’s how I got involved. I was the community services director of my Rotary Club and somebody brought the program to us.
At the same time that we were getting emails about this program in Rotary, I found out that one of my daughter’s best friends was going to be evicted. I had no idea that her family was living so close to the edge of homelessness and poverty. Her mom lost her job at a local convenience store, and that was a good job because it had benefits. The friend would come to our house and eat us out of house and home. But all the kids do, so that didn’t really strike me as anything unusual until I started going over to her home and started trying to help out. I didn’t realize that my daughter was giving her all of her lunches and this sort of thing. So, at the same time this was happening personally with a kid that I really liked, this program came to my Rotary Club.
How did you get the program going?
We did a pilot project in the spring of 2016, picking one school and running the program for 12 weeks for 20 kids to see how it would go. We knew there’d be a lot more than 20 kids who could use that program in our community, and the program grew fast. Now we have 72 backpacks going to six different schools, and we have more schools that want them.
Why is this work important?
We know that there are around 200 students who use lunch programs in our school district, so we knew the need was there. The North Okanagan has a lot of lower income families who rely on seasonal work. We have higher than average unemployment in BC, and more children using food banks.
We get testimonials from some of the parents, and they’ll say that the fresh fruit is the best, or the meat is the best. And we’ll give canned ham or canned tuna. It is not fancy. In the Okanagan we’re known for growing cherries, peaches, apples; but for some kids their Starfish Pack is the only fresh fruit they get in the week, and that is just stunning.
How does doing this make you feel?
This is very rewarding for me. It brings me great satisfaction to know that a few more bellies are full on the weekend because of a little bit of effort from myself and all the volunteers who contribute to the program. It helps me to talk to my kids about food insecurity and privilege. And at the end of the day I’m proud of it. And I want to model to other people that they can have an impact in their community too.
How do you find the time to manage everything?
I don’t have my own family practice, which enables me to do other things than be a doctor. I have a little more flexibility in my schedule, and I’ve created that in order to be able to do things outside of paid work, because that’s what I like!
There are not a lot of doctors in Rotary because it is hard to get to the meetings all the time, but I make it a priority. I have carved out Thursday lunchtime for Rotary meetings. I teach med students on Thursday afternoons, so I kind of keep Thursdays for non-clinic duties. Thursday mornings work out well for me to manage the program. We as a volunteer group pack all the backpacks on Thursday mornings, and then on Friday we have a combination of volunteers and our community partner, the Boys and Girls Club, deliver them to the schools.
What do your kids think about what you do?
I think they’re proud of me doing this. They don’t mind coming to help me to pack the bags. Sometimes they see kids on the bus that have a backpack and they’ll come and tell me. It opens up conversations with them about how much we have, how little some other people have, and why we need to share.
That’s something a lot of parents struggle with, helping our kids to understand that not everyone has it as good as them.
Right. My husband is a surgeon and I am a doctor. I tell my eldest that how she lives is not the norm, and we try to reinforce that with her. We also reinforce that it took us 20 years of education to get to this point. She has to know that if this kind of life is her expectation, she has to put a lot of work in, and she has the privilege of having us to help her get there. I think the kids that have — don’t notice the differences. The kids that don’t — have to.
What’s one piece of advice you’d give to other parents about working/living with purpose?
I think you need to find whatever you like to do, whether that be music or mountain biking or community service. There’s always going to be a group somewhere that has the same interests as you. I think you just have to take that step and find that group. I always try to live out of generosity of spirit, to live my life openhearted, assume the best, and fight my inner judgment, and teach my kids that. I think that if you go into these things thinking that most people are good and most people want to help, knowing that everyone has barriers to helping, I think most people can find community. Having said that, moving to a smaller town helped that. When I lived in a big city I found it harder to find community outside of my kids activities.
What do you think you have in common with other moms?
Well, I know one difference is that I don’t have financial stress, which is a huge thing. I don’t have to work a night shift or manage my food budget. That gives me a lot of freedom to pursue things that I want to do. What I have in common with other moms is that we all love our kids, and we all want them to grow up to be contributing citizens that care and know what’s right and wrong.
What’s been hardest about what you do?
Managing everybody’s needs and wants, which I’m sure is the same for most moms. The kids all have activities, and if I lose my phone with my calendar I’m screwed! If it doesn’t go in the calendar it doesn’t exist! I’m very organized, which is a boring but useful trait.
What other moms do you admire?
Single moms. I don’t know how they do it. My daughter does rhythmic gymnastics, which is an expensive sport and there’s a single mom who brings her daughter. I don’t know what sacrifices that she has to make to get her daughter there. I can’t imagine.
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