An apple a day

How to launch a nutrition program in your school.

I knew I was on to something when I was swarmed by a bunch of kids in the schoolyard. I was delivering a tray of fruit and cheese to one of the portables at my son’s school. The kids were out for recess and saw me coming. One child politely asked if he could snag a piece of cheese. A smile and a nod from me and a couple more approached. My laughter signalled to the surrounding kids that the food was up for grabs and in moments every scrap was gone. These kids were excited about nutritious food!

I am one of the hard-working parent volunteers who staff the nutrition program at V K Greer Memorial Public School in Muskoka, Ont. When we began our program three years ago, we had no idea whether kids would turn their noses up at a healthy snack. But now it’s their enthusiasm that keeps us going.

Parents had been asking for years for some sort of nutrition program for our 290 kindergarten to grade-eight students. They wanted something early in the day for the many kids who arrive at school hungry. It’s a common story; there just isn’t time for breakfast in the rush to get out the door in the morning. In fact, the national student nutrition group, Breakfast for Learning, reports that 31 percent of elementary school students don’t eat breakfast daily. The child who arrives unfed will have problems with learning, concentration and behaviour.

For some schools, hunger is a strong motivator. Toronto’s Daily Bread Food Bank reports that children make up a whopping 38 percent of people relying on food banks for basic hunger relief. And while Canada is one of the few industrialized countries without a national meal program for kids, some provinces see a stronger commitment to school-based nutrition programs than others. According to Breakfast for Learning, in 2006 the BC government contributed $14 million to school nutrition programs and the Ontario government $8.5 million, while other jurisdictions, including Alberta, spent nothing.

What a program looks like

Each school must assess its own needs and come up with something that works for the kids, the volunteers and the school. Most nutrition programs offer breakfast or snack. At our rural school, most children arrive on buses just before the morning bell, so there’s no time for breakfast before class. That’s why we opted for a daily healthy snack with the focus on fresh fruit, vegetables and dairy — usually cheese, but sometimes milk or yogurt. We used to serve the snack mid-morning, but now, to cover the kids who haven’t had anything to eat yet, we try to have it in the classroom when students arrive.

The snack is offered to every child, every day. Not everyone takes it, but they all get the opportunity; this universality is key to success and part of the criteria from our funders. There’s no stigma attached so children who may be in need aren’t too shy to help themselves. We also have an emergency lunch option that’s used a few times a week. If a teacher identifies a student in need of lunch, or if a child asks, then there are food items and milk available. I suspect that if it were universally offered, more hungry students would belly up to the lunch bar.

Parents, educators and health professionals all agree that offering nutrition in school is beneficial. But how to begin? Once we’d secured our principal’s support, our next move was to meet with a dietitian from the local public health unit to determine the best foods for our menu. Our dietitian, Mary Ellen Deane, stressed offering fresh fruit, vegetables, milk, milk alternatives (cheese, yogurt) and whole grains. These are the foods most children are lacking in their diet.

Deane sees the role of nutrition programs as much more than feeding the hungry. She talks about achieving a “culture of nutrition” in schools. “Here we have a golden opportunity to allow students to actively participate in the lessons they’ve learned about nutritional eating.”

Then we had to find some money. A Toronto Public Health report suggests that elementary school programs need to be funded per child per day at $1.21 for breakfast, $1.09 for snack and $1.83 for lunch. Each year requires fresh sourcing of funds, through applications for grants and appeals for donations. This year, we will receive funds from the Ontario Ministry of Children and Youth Services, Break-fast for Learning and the Trillium Lakelands School Board. We have also found money from local service groups and parents through in-school fundraising. Local grocery stores grant us discounts and our shoppers look for weekly specials. Money is tight, but we get by.

Our next step was to find the most essential piece of the puzzle: volunteers. Our first year we managed to provide snacks three days a week, and the workload was shouldered by four parents. This year, by arranging a schedule where cleanup, prep, shopping and bookkeeping can be done nights and weekends, we strengthened our numbers since parents with daytime jobs could take part. If this year’s team of 16 committed parents is any indication, the program should keep going strong for years to come.

Success takes commitment from parents and educators alike. But the extra time and energy we put into nourishing our school community pays off. If my child can concentrate better having had a healthy snack, then he’s less likely to distract your child. It’s a win-win.

Do’s and don’ts

If you’re considering starting a nutrition program at your kids’ school:

Do make sure parents, teachers and your principal are on board.

Do contact Breakfast for Learning at breakfastforlearning.ca or 1-800-627-7922. Staff will offer advice on start-up and maintenance, answer questions and direct you to resources in your area.

Don’t overwork too few volunteers.

Do apply for discounts from local grocery stores.

Do focus on fruit, vegetables and dairy products such as milk and cheese.

Don’t try to do everything yourself.