Nourish Cowichan Society: Food for Students

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A grass roots movement to solve a community crisis. Nourish Cowichan Society grew from a need to feed children. Over 4,100 children in the Cowichan Valley live in poverty – about 30% of children living in the area. A number of them go to school without a meal.

When they learned that children in the valley were going to school without breakfast, Dina Holbrook (former nurse), Fatima Da Silva (chef), and Anita Carroll (community and nursing teacher) were moved to take action. Driven by a passion to support others in their community, they decided to reach out to a local school principal.

The first school. The principal and staff at Khowhemun Elementary were ready for change and already had some of the basic infrastructure in place to offer a breakfast program. By working together, school staff made it easier for the Nourish team to learn how best to structure and deliver their program. Within just a few weeks, the first breakfast program was launched – feeding up to 90 students every morning.

At first, the Nourish crew used a small kitchen to prepare meals – a restaurant that one of the members, Fatima, had leased from a winery. The facility was small, but it met necessary health and safety requirements for food preparation and distribution.

Conversations with other schools. The first breakfast program highlighted just how much food insecurity there was. Other schools in the area also needed support tackling this challenge.

“Our process was to try not just to provide meals but also to find a sustainable way to deliver the program. We visited some schools and inquired about already existing programs. Many did not seem to have a long-term plan for sustainability, they were doing their very best to handle a long-term crisis that had become almost a taboo subject to mention. As a group, we knew that the solution was a no-brainer, we needed to properly feed children.”

The Nourish team adapted program delivery wherever possible. Making it easy for schools to adopt the program helped things to run smoother.

Becoming a charity. By December of that year, after many discussions and an assessment of what the program could potentially become, the group applied for charity status with the federal government.

After that, they were ready to introduce themselves to the school board. First, they met with superintendent Rod Allen. He understood their vision to help feed children. He arranged for them to meet with the local school district board of trustees as well as other school principals.

Raising money. “The first fundraiser was held at a winery. The theme was a champagne tea party on a Sunday afternoon. We were hoping that if we got at least 40 people to come and hear about the project, we just might raise a little money to help with the expenses. Over 130 guests showed up, and we knew right then that the community was ready to have a conversation about child poverty in our schools. Our first event raised $5,000.00. Today our combined community events bring over $400,000.00 annually."

A kitchen upgrade. Within a few months, the team took on more schools and needed a larger kitchen. At first, they searched the community for one that they could lease or share. They soon realized, though, that having a dedicated space all their own was crucial to the success of the program.

They decided to ask the district superintendent for help and later that year, they were excited to form an official partnership with SD 79, which included getting a new kitchen located onsite at one of the schools. They signed a lease to make sure the kitchen and the program stayed independent of the school system.

News article: “Partnership Means Increased Food Security for Students”  

A former metal shop at École Mount Prevost in Duncan is being given new life thanks to a partnership between the Cowichan Valley School District (SD 79) and the Nourish Cowichan Society, which will see the non-profit organization convert the space into a food preparation facility to feed more kids in the district.  

“We know that children learn better when they are well nourished, and unfortunately we have a number of young learners in our district who come to school hungry,” said Candace Spilsbury, Chair of the Board of Education for SD 79. “We are very pleased to be able to provide the Nourish Cowichan Society with a space for their food production, so they can continue to grow and expand their support to other schools in the Cowichan Valley.”

Today this program has grown into a charitable society with a board of directors dedicated to raising funds to help expand the program to several schools and nourish as many children as possible.

Nourish today. The team of board members and 60+ volunteers at Nourish Cowichan are now proud to be supporting over 1300 students in 20 different schools. The program now offers breakfast, lunch, snacks & weekend food support.

Starting a Charitable Organization: Lessons Learned

Nourish Cowichan invented itself quickly. Its founders were most interested in taking action as hands-on volunteers. This meant that organizational structure and administration was constantly playing catch-up to rapid expansion – creating confusion about roles and responsibilities. Eventually, the team created governance structures and policies so that the program could continue to grow in a more sustainable way.

"No organization gets to where we are without hardships, countless late nights and very early working hours. We were driven by a sense of emergency to get meals to the children. Board policies and procedures were the last thing on our times the differences of governance styles created some discord."

There is no single, right structure for all non-profit organizations, and it may be necessary to change models over time. Draw on advice from experienced board members or find society constitutions and bylaws online and adjust them to meet your needs.

Find suggestions for setting up administration and operations or borrow policies and governance from the Nourish Cowichan Society Board Policy Manual (PDF, 512.5 KB).