Meeting the challenges in our school food programs

It’s safe to say that Morgan Palmer, a Red Seal Chef, Registered Dietitian, and newly appointed school food environment project lead, is excited about the future of food in all schools across the Island. Just as excited as her are the students she’s working with. East Wiltshire Intermediate, Tignish Elementary, and Morell Regional High pooled the resources they were awarded through the Community Food Security and Food Education Program in late 2017 in order to work with Palmer on a program aimed at increasing the amount of fresh, local food at schools.

“Student engagement can really make or break this type of project,” Palmer said about the need to involve the students in all phases of changing school food environments. For that reason, she engaged students from the beginning, conducting focus groups with the students at all levels she’s been working with. And she hears them loud and clear: they want to be engaged, they want healthier food, and they want to learn about it hands-on.

Morgan Palmer meets with East Wiltshire students//submitted photo

When she initially met with the student government representatives at Morell Regional High, for example, it was suggested that by adding a competitive component to a food-centred activity, it would be more exciting and memorable for those involved. Fast forward to February 7th, when the school organized a school-wide potato peeling contest that put local food directly into the hands of students in a fun and challenging atmosphere.

On the day of the contest, the cafeteria offered a baked potato bar for lunch with donations from local businesses like the Morell Co-op. It featured Island products like ADL cheese, coleslaw with vegetables from Seaspray Organics and Soleil’s Farm, pulled pork made with Point Prim pork, and, of course, Compton’s baked potatoes. The PEI Potato Board also supported the challenge through in-kind donations and Canada’s Smartest Kitchen sent their product developers to help prepare and serve at the potato bar. It was the students’ idea to hold the contest, but it will be Palmer’s primary role to look at the overall food environment at Morell High and the other schools she’s working with in order to eventually make formal suggestions on how to improve their food environments.

To do this effectively, Palmer explains, she needs to keep in mind the supports each school will need in order to carry out any suggested activities. “They [the schools] have some autonomy, but they do need a lot of support. They are all really different,” she said. This involves working with school administration and students to find out what their unique priorities are, and eventually providing solutions that are carried out through a farm-to-school lens. The solutions need to be sustainably integrated into the schools, moving from the current short-term program stage to ongoing curriculum for years to come.

Three major themes of the food environment program are local procurement and food service, curriculum connections, and hands-on learning. If a school decides that food procurement is a priority, Palmer will work with their provider to introduce healthy options or better systems. Another school may express interest in having a garden or a greenhouse on their school property, in which case she would explore the potential for community partnerships with local farmers, growers, and agriculture technologies to create those spaces.

The differences between each school’s objectives as well as the differences in facilities, curricula, and administrative bandwidth, creates both a challenge and an opportunity for Palmer’s role. “There are lots of cool initiatives being done by different schools because of what they’re each capable of, but it’s understanding what programs to move forward with and nailing down that vision that everybody can agree on,” she said. “If I can help to shape that, then the schools can take that and run with it.”

Jordan Brown, minister of education, Meghan Taylor, grade 12 student, and Robert Mitchell, minister of health and wellness//Photo credit: Cheryl Young/Salty

She admits that the issues are complex, but adds that she believes the timing is right for all stakeholders to work together to find the best solutions for introducing healthier food systems. Time is a limited resource for this engagement, however, as the program has an anticipated completion date of March 2018. “A more focused role and strategic plan will be the next step,” Palmer said, and she’s optimistic about that happening.

If you’re wondering how you can get involved to support the efforts being made, follow the schools on their social media accounts and share their stories. The more that each success story is shared, the more likely it will be that other schools on the Island will strive to make similar changes to their food environments. Palmer concluded, “It would be great if this pilot led other schools and student health stakeholders to take notice and want to do something similar.”