Brain food

Schools that put nutritional literacy on the program

It used to be that school lunches were the land of peanut butter sandwiches, foil-wrapped hot dogs and Wagon Wheels. Fast-forward to today, and you’ll find nutrition and wellness-based snacks and breakfast and lunch programs on many school menus as a way to feed their students’ bodies and minds.

Check out these five schools that have turned their meal programs around and added a healthy kick to them.

Winchester Junior and Senior Public Schools
Ten years ago, enrolment levels were dropping at downtown Toronto Winchester Junior and Senior Public Schools, and as a result, portables supporting the school were removed. Suddenly, things became clear — much clearer in fact. “When the portables came out, all of a sudden the neighbours had a sightline that they didn’t have before, so they organized to reclaim the space as a naturalized garden,” says Sunday Harrison, executive director of Green Thumbs Growing Kids in Toronto.

Harrison, who was operating an after-school gardening program in the neighbourhood, joined the initiative to help create what is today an 11,000-square-foot plot of garden space that includes plant beds, a learning circle and approximately 500 square feet of food production. Fruit and vegetable crops, including potatoes, garlic, cucumbers and spinach, grow with the help of Green Thumbs and the students.

As part of their involvement, children regularly eat what’s grown in the garden and turn over the rest of the bounty to the school’s twice weekly salad bar. “The produce goes directly into children’s mouths from the garden, or it’s used to prepare into meals,” says Harrison. “We’re all about encouraging that tasting and developing a palate for fresh foods for the children.”

Lancaster Public School
Many schools today offer breakfast programs where children, for little to no cost, can start their days with a brain-boosting meal. But Marlyne King, principal of Lancaster Public School in Mississauga, wanted to take their program further. “Along with my superintendant, I sought permission to pilot a healthy lunch program,” says King.

The program proved successful and today, four-and-a-half years later, Toonie Tuesdays are a hit. For $2 every Tuesday and Thursday, the school offers a fresh fruit bar, a salad bar and a hot item such as rice and peas or vegetarian curry on Tuesday and a wrap filled with ingredients such as egg or tuna on Thursday. Healthy Living Peel supplies the program with free milk.

It takes a village to produce the program. Numerous volunteers, plus a paid employee, keep the program active. The Lunch Bunch, a group of children who announce the meals regularly over the intercom, also do food tastings for menu suggestions. Then there are those working in the garden, filled with fruits and vegetables that make their way into the salad bar, or are used by the school daycare in the summertime when enrolled students are on vacation. Teachers, as well, support the program financially, paying $3 for their meals.

What impact does this have on the student body? “Just come into my school — I haven’t done a suspension in two years,” says King. “You can feel it here — it’s a peaceful, peaceful place.”

Children’s Garden Junior School
Hot dogs, chicken nuggets, fish sticks, Fudgesicles…they are the kinds of food that children at Children’s Garden School may have liked, but some parents and staff certainly didn’t. “It was really becoming highly processed with a lot of packaging, so it just reached critical levels,” says Kelly Scott, director of admissions of Children’s Garden Junior School (CGS) in Toronto.

So CGS switched in March to a new prepared food supplier — Real Food for Real Kids (rfrk.com), a Toronto-based company offering organic meals and snacks made from scratch. “Most of their food is locally sourced and they soak their own beans and bake their own bread,” says Scott.

In addition to offering healthy meals such as “Ninja Fish” and “Saucy with a Chance of Meatballs,” parents are now much more aware of what their children will tuck into at lunch since menus are published two weeks in advance and sent home.

Real Foods also brings is a Lunch Club coach to help students know what they’re eating. “The coach comes in and brings the food from the kitchen, then serves it and explains what all of the food is about that day, because sometimes it’s purple rice and other things kids may have not seen before,” says Scott. “That’s a big part of it — the company wants to educate the kids about the program and it is working. Now our kids are eating so much better than before, I’d say by 300 percent.”

The Alan Howard Waldorf School
“Our program is designed upon a belief around imitation — we want kids to be able to imitate real things and that’s how we believe they’ll learn best,” says Jennifer Deathe, the school’s marketing and outreach coordinator for The Alan Howard Waldorf School in Toronto.

So with that philosophy in mind, the children in the private school’s early childhood education program, including students in its playschool, nursery and kindergarten, get into their food elbows-deep. Every day children chop vegetables for soup, help cut fruit for snacks, grind grains to help bake the bread and more. “The food is organic and nutritious but it’s also very simple,” says Deathe. “It helps introduce them to the concept of where their food comes from.”

But food learning isn’t restricted to the young set. For instance, as part of the grade three curriculum students examine seeds and grains in science. Part of that program includes planting a garden, which by grade four they will harvest and turn into a soup. “Ultimately the relationship with growing food and preparing it also nurtures a bond with the earth and an understanding of what the earth provides,” says Deathe.

Morning Star Middle School
With a definite demand for a nutrition program at Mississauga-based Morning Star Middle School, help first arrived with the introduction of a breakfast program in 2008. The school doesn’t have a stove and only houses a small prep area and a toaster, so offered items that didn’t need cooking, such as wholegrain cereals and bagels.

Today, two years later, the school’s Eat Smart! Program has expanded into offering lunches as well, which include prepared sandwiches such as cheese or tuna salad, cut up fruit and vegetables and a drink. The pilot proved so successful it earned an Eat Smart! Award of Excellence in 2008/2009 and 2009/2010.

While making healthy choices is encouraged, Lauren Beckford, a guidance counsellor at Morning Star, says the program offers another learning opportunity. “Our students don’t always have a good idea about what is enough food to eat, so we try to get them to understand proper portion sizes and good nutrition values as well,” she explains.

And what do the students think? An evaluation of the program through Peel Public Health discovered that 89 percent of students surveyed felt they learned not only that it was important to make healthy food choices, but why it was important to make such choices. And 88 percent of those surveyed also noted that they now knew how to make healthier food and drink choices.

As they make their way into more schools, nutrition programs will undoubtedly broaden in scope and size. Soon it may be the norm to see salads and healthy hot lunches on every child’s plate. And for that, schools should be getting an A+.

Putting a Nutritional Program in Place

Inspired to dig a garden at your child’s school? Want to get a salad bar in place? Here are some tips from those who’ve been there:

Start small If you’re looking to create a garden, start with a few big return plants, suggests Harrison. “Fruit shrubs might be easier to build programming around because they are easier than vegetables that need a lot of water,” she says, recommending raspberry canes, red currant bushes or strawberries — all plants which fruit in June.

Ask for help Schools are clearly on tight budgets, so look for partners in your community, be it businesses or individuals, says King. She notes that last year the school’s Toonie program was supported in part by a neighbouring philanthropist.

Think flavour Not convinced you can get children to pick spinach and eat it out of the garden? Opt for flavourful plants to start. “We grow sorrel and the kids call it sour leaf,” says Harrison. “It’s hugely popular with the children and has lots of flavour and appeal.”

Don’t build Rome in a day If the idea of instituting a full lunch program is too overwhelming, look for smaller, one-day initiatives to start, such as the Great Big Crunch — an event where students all bite into an apple at the same time to celebrate healthy eating (foodshare.net).

Kid-Friendly Caterers

• M. Halpert Catering Ltd. promising meals that are trans fat free, contain no artificial preservatives or genetically modified foods. halpertcatering.com
• Kidssentials offering a menu of more than 30 different hot and cold meals, including veggie-packed salads and wraps. kiddsentials.com
• Boaden’s Daycare Catering with registered dietitian approved menus, Boaden’s meals are made from scratch. boaden.com
• Organic Kids Catering an all organic caterer to both schools and daycares. organickidscatering.com

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