Catering to kid’s tastes with a lunch program

From school breakfast programs to the provincial government’s Community Food Security and Food Education program introduced last spring, there is a growing recognition of students’ need for healthy, nutritious foods, both at school and at home. The phrase ‘good food’ has become synonymous with this effort to give students a firm foundation to grow upon.

PEI’s elementary schools are a natural starting point for this foundation and since none have on-site cafeterias, the challenge is to get hot, tasty, and nutritious meals to students. John and Joanne Pritchard own Pure Kitchen Catering. Their quest to put healthy lunch alternatives in front of kids at various Charlottetown schools started over seven years ago.

The opportunity to cater to schools came out of wanting good food options for their daughter. “If she was going to have a school lunch, we wanted there to be a healthy option,” Joanne Pritchard said. Their daughter was attending Spring Park school in Charlottetown and they approached the school about providing hot lunches. Many years later, they are still getting healthy, hot lunches to Spring Park and other Charlottetown schools three times a week.

Every meal is freshly prepared in their commercial kitchen, and from start to finish, the process to get a hot, healthy meal to a kid’s desk is under three hours. John’s experience as an executive chef in high-end restaurants like Terre Rouge and resorts in Bermuda and the Cayman Islands is obvious when watching the efficiency with which the meals are prepared.

Joanne and John Pritchard fill lunch containers//Photo credit: Cheryl Young/Salty

Like a well-oiled machine, the husband and wife team work quickly to fill individual containers with the day’s hot meal. With over 140 hot meals to deliver to two schools (today it’s Spring Park Elementary and St. Jean Elementary), timing is everything. A wheat-free kamut pasta with a tomato meat sauce is on the menu today. A vegetarian option without the meat is offered too. Other meals they prepare include favourites like mac and cheese, a chicken-vegetable rice bowl, and a chicken wrap.

The cooked pasta is quickly scooped into each container, sauce is added, and lids put on. When a tray of meals is complete, it goes into a warming oven to stay hot. Joanne then sets up the individual classroom brown bags, into which will go the meals, napkins, and spoons. Each bag is labeled with a classroom ID, number of meals, and whether it contains meat or vegetarian meals.

Kamut Pasta with meat sauce//Photo credit: Cheryl Young/Salty

When it’s close to 11 am, John and Joanne take the hot lunches from the oven and quickly fill the brown bags, which are then placed into an insulated bag to stay warm. Assembly-line efficiency means that the brown bags are stuffed and the full insulated bags are ready for John to deliver to the schools in no time. Once at the school, he’s greeted by the students themselves, who participate by delivering the meals to their classrooms and schoolmates.

At $3.75 a meal, the hot lunch is an affordable solution for many parents. It can be a challenge to keep costs low for the meals and Pritchard is grateful for local support from vendors, like the Root Cellar, who provides ingredients (such as the pasta) for the meals at a discount. Nutritious, healthy food can sometimes come with a higher price tag, so having local support is vital. As well, he notes that some schools will order extra meals, so as to provide for students who may not be able to afford the cost.

Getting ready for delivery//Photo credit: Cheryl Young/Salty

John’s vision extends beyond simply providing hot meals, to an all-encompassing view of food and what children are taught in school. “Apart from, obviously the nutritional aspect, we’re in a small agricultural community and why is it that we can’t be self-contained, and using local product as much as possible and using local purveyors, rather than supporting and training children to get used to corporate food.” This attitude is gaining traction within school policy, and programs around food education are springing up in PEI schools; however, there are still difficulties getting fresh, healthy food in front of students.

“The real challenge is that there’s no real policy in place. Depending upon what school you are going to and what year of that school you’re approaching them, it could be the home and school that is handling it, or it could be the office administration,” John said, speaking of the lunch programs across the Island. “At the end of the day, I think it’s very important that there be something in place that says ‘at the very least these are the things that you need to do, to be able to do this [provide meals]’. There needs to be a good balance.”

The PEI Home and School Federation (PEIHSF) continues to press the provincial government to implement a province-wide school lunch program. In 2015 they adopted a resolution to ‘establish a provincial school lunch program for all Island children that adheres to the school nutrition policies and regulations.’

“After the resolution was passed, we developed, we had really great movement and collaboration working with government on this, they’re very interested and we’ve had a lot of meetings…we’ve developed some guiding principles for school food. So this is something we’ve prepared within the organization…to understand what it is that we actually would want from a school lunch program if one came about,” Heather Mullen, PEIHSF treasurer, said.

The public school boards have guidelines on what foods should be accessible in schools and for promoting healthy food choices, but Mullen suggests that these are not always being followed. Incorporating those guidelines into a lunch program, along with the logistical aspects of a provincial lunch program are two areas that the PEIHSF continue to work on. “It’s been very exciting for the last two years…there’s been a lot of interest right now, we’re just going to keep working as hard as we can. The government, the department of education’s listening, the department of agriculture. So you know, the right departments, the right people are sitting down to talk and collaborate, so we’re just going to keep talking and I don’t think it’s an issue Home and School is going to be putting down anytime soon. It’s very important, we hear from members at every meeting.”

The PEIHSF also looks at a province-wide lunch program as an opportunity for food education and collaboration with PEI’s farmers and food providers. “It’s not just education, it’s agriculture as well, it’s local food and we see it as a big picture item,“ Mullen said.

John Pritchard has the same mindset. “Long term, wouldn’t it make sense, though, to make the food programs in your school part of the education. On so many levels, right, in terms of developing confidence, the ability to take care of yourself, the importance of relationship of food and the rest of your life,” he said, reiterating how food education needs to start early so children are given a solid foundation to build on for life.

About Cheryl Young

A “Jill of all trades” describes Cheryl to a T. From operating her own handyperson company, to selling luxury cars, to working as a film and TV crew member, her resume is diverse. But her dream as a kid was to be a journalist and she started down that path many years ago at CBC Charlottetown. Returning to her journalism roots, she’s excited to be editing Salty’s content and occasionally writing herself.

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