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Saint John’s Inner City Youth Ministry is undergoing a great deal of change these days, with its two employees switching roles, the addition of a breakfast program and an expansion of the Lunch Connection to serve more schools. Packing more school lunches has led to a need for more cloth lunch bags.

Erin Rideout finished her one-year maternity leave at the end of 2023, but decided she did not want to return to full-time work. 

“It was always in the back of my mind,” said Erin. “I was back and forth quite a lot. But this is a good, permanent shift for me. It’s worked out perfectly. It couldn’t be more clear.”

She is now the administrative assistant, doing more grant writing, fundraising, administration, social media and newsletters, working from home about 10 hours a week.

Bonnie Hunt, who was the program assistant and filled in as acting director while Erin was out, is now the director.

“For the last year, I just wanted to keep everything going,” said Bonnie. “Now I’m able to plot a course for the future. I’m excited to be able to look ahead.”

The title of director is not new to Bonnie, who held it prior to Erin’s arrival. When Bonnie joined the staff of Threshold Ministries in 2016, Erin became director. Bonnie returned to work at ICYM in 2022, so she has come full circle.

While the title is the same, the role is vastly different from what Bonnie left.

“Ten years ago, the kids came to you for lunch, or you went to the schools to prepare a hot lunch,” said Bonnie, noting the pandemic completely changed the way Lunch Connection operates.

“Because of COVID, we’ve been able to move to the hub kitchen model and serve more schools,” she said.

ICYM’s school food programs have been headquartered at the Anglophone South district office in Millidgeville for a year, taking over the large industrial kitchen that used to prepare lunches for students at Millidgeville North High School.

The province paid for the upgrades, bringing the kitchen out of the 1970s, though it’s more of a spacious prep area than a kitchen these days.

Bagged lunches became the necessity during COVID, and these days, 60 volunteers pack about 1,800 lunches a week into cloth bags. By Jan. 30, they had packed 25,000 lunches so far this school year.

The lunches contain a fruit and a vegetable (carrots, cucumbers, snap peas, celery, banana, apple, orange), a protein or dairy (yogurt, hummus, cheese string) and much more: popcorn, half a bagel with cream cheese, naan bread, trail mix, crackers, and/or a granola bar. 

All meals are Halal and peanut-free, which are pricey but necessary. Bagels, pop corn and homemade trail mix (dried mangos and cranberries, chocolate chips, pumpkin seeds, goldfish crackers, Cheerios and mini pretzels) are the most popular.

Two years ago, ICYM decided to forego paper bags in favour of reusable cloth bags, and asked parishioners and friends to sew them. The seemingly insurmountable task was a huge success, with about 3,500 in use a year ago.

However, as the lunches evolved, the early pattern turned out to be too small. Others, as they expected, have gone missing.

“When I did an inventory count over Christmas, we were missing 800 bags,” said Bonnie. “I suspect there’s 30 in this class, 30 in that class, in a milk crate under a table. And some have probably gone home.”

They serve 11 schools, with four more scheduled to come under the Lunch Connection program this spring, necessitating the need for far more lunch bags that are larger than the first ones.

“Ideally 2,000 more,” said Bonnie. “That will give us a two-week rotation.”

In the meantime they’ve taken the smaller first bags and put two together to make one, she said.

While the Department of Education gives them free space, it does not pay for lunches. Schools have built a capacity fee into their school fees, and parents, who are able, pay $10 a month for the lunches and milk. Schools pay ICYM a nominal fee of $2.50 per lunch, which does not cover the food costs, particularly in the last year. ICYM relies on donations to make up the difference.

ICYM has a partnership with Food Depot Alimentaire in Moncton, which is a hub for the food banks and is responsible for providing breakfast to students. ICYM acts as a middleman between the food depot and the schools, ordering food chosen by the schools.

“We divide it up and the schools come and pick it up,” said Bonnie. 

They began with three schools in the breakfast program. Bonnie estimates there will be 10 schools on board by fall. 

While the Lunch Connection takes up the vast majority of Bonnie’s time, they have other programs in the city. 
In the summer, they hold a picnic two days a week and invite the community to join them for lunch. Those families who sign up get a backpack once a week with food and a recipe to make a meal at home. They had about 35 families involved last year.

With volunteers at Stone Church, they help run a youth group. And Bonnie is hoping to be able to restart the Family Connection program, that provides a box for families, each containing all the ingredients for a meal, a recipe, a game and books for families to enjoy an evening together.

With so much going on, Bonnie is looking for another 10-15 volunteers at the Millidgeville hub to help prepare snacks and pack lunches. 

“I need volunteers to help on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and/or Thursday. There are different shifts each day,” said Bonnie.

If you are interested in helping out, or if you’d like the new lunch bag pattern, contact Bonnie: .

1.  Employees of JD Irving Ltd. take care of delivering all the school lunches to area schools.
2.  Bonnie, with mask, and volunteers with cloth lunch bags made and donated by Portland United Church in Saint John.
3.  The carrot peeling team of Gail, Kath and Anne Marie.
4.  Rani is one of the volunteers, but there's a need for more helpers. Contact Bonnie if you are interested. 

Submitted photos

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