03/26/2013 07:36 EDT | Updated 05/26/2013 05:12 EDT

Many Burnaby elementary schools have no hot lunch program

Less than a third of the elementary schools in the Burnaby School District have a hot lunch program despite the benefits it provides for children whose families can't afford to send them to school with a meal.

School district officials say it is up to individual schools to request the school lunch programs where there are enough students to justify it.

"For some families who face financial challenges, a hot lunch program is a blessing," says Hal Wall, the principal of Morley Elementary School in Burnaby, B.C.

Morley is one of only 13 schools in Burnaby to offer a school meal program out of a total of 41 elementary schools in the district.

Wall says because of the program students come to class happy and ready to learn.

"If a child had not had something to eat they would be distracted and irritable all day," says Wall.

Wall recalls overhearing a student in September exclaiming how excited they were that school was starting again because they would be provided with a lunch.

Another benefit is that meal programs are nutritionally planned, says Wall.

"You have your milk, grains, and everything you would need to have a balanced, healthy meal. I would say that with a meal program students actually eat better than if they were to pack a lunch from home.

"There is also an important social benefit that comes from making sure every student has something to eat at lunchtime.

"With a meal program, students who can’t afford to bring a lunch from home don't have to be embarrassed or uncomfortable about it because they aren’t eating alone," says Wall.

"They are surrounded by boys, girls, everyone. They all eat together and I think that the students really appreciate that."

New program coming to Armstrong Elementary

Armstrong Elementary is one Burnaby school that has recently requested a lunch program, according to Principal Ernie Kashima.

"As a school or community, you identify that a number of students would benefit from a lunch," says Kashima.

"You go through the school district and P.A.C (Parent Advisory Committee) and you tell them that a number of students are not bringing a lunch or can't afford to bring a lunch. The school district takes a look and they visit your school to check if anything needs to be rebuilt."

If the school does not have the necessary kitchen facilities, the district will take care of that, says Kashima.

"If it's not big enough basically the school district will gut it and rebuild it to the size it needs to be."

Cost is $55 per month

Schools that are currently running the program say that all the effort is worth it. Even families that can afford to pay the full amount still find the program to be helpful.

The program is paid for by a combination of parent contributions, charitable donations, and funding from the provincial Ministry of Education, according to the school district.

Families with children in the program are asked to pay $55 per month, but those families that cannot afford to pay the full amount are asked to contribute what they can.

"Not all schools need them," says Kashima. "Most of the schools that have them requested it because of a large amount of students that needed it.

"It would be nice to have them everywhere, but if the students can afford bringing lunches from home every day then it doesn't seem to be price worthy to go through the process of getting [a hot lunch program]."

MAP: Burnaby elementary schools with lunch programs