Finding common ground in school food programs

A diverse group of people gathered at the PEI Farm Centre on March 15 to discuss the challenges and successes of several projects implemented as part of the PEI government’s Community Food Security and Food Education Program. Teachers, dieticians, parents, farmers, and concerned citizens participated in a robust discussion. Some of the many topics raised included using local food in schools, menu planning, and the cost-effectiveness of organic versus conventional produce in school food programs.

A joint effort with a number of provincial departments (Agriculture and Fisheries; Health and Wellness; and Education, Early Learning and Culture), the program was created to promote good nutrition and healthy food choices, build community self-reliance, link farmers to consumers, and build pride and joy in preparing foods. The grant program was announced in late November 2017 and the successful groups and schools were given funds to create and run activities to achieve these goals by the end of March 2018.

The PEI Certified Organic Producers Cooperative (PEICOPC) organized the information and results-sharing session. A grant participant, they partnered with Queen Elizabeth Elementary School (QEES) in Kensington and Bev Campbell, QEES’s food program coordinator, to increase the availability of fresh, local, organic produce in the school’s food programs. The afternoon session had multiple grant participants present their findings.

Bethany Dunn, a dietetic intern at UPEI, helped to organize a food event at Morell Consolidated that saw a partnership with Wyman’s Blueberries create blueberries smoothies for the children using a bicycle blender. She also collaborated with Nourished Kitchen to create nutrition education sessions and will have packages go home with the children that will include recipes and tips on serving healthy nutritious foods at home. The goal is to make some lasting changes to the food programs.

Morgan Palmer was hired to work for three schools scattered across the Island. One key fact she noted was that most schools rely heavily on processed foods and the pressure to earn a profit can result in serving foods that are not the most nutritious and not locally sourced. “Nothing is made from scratch, nobody’s actually really cooking in our schools,” she said. A lack of equipment in the schools along with administrative differences in how food programs are organized creates difficulties. Many schools run multiple programs like breakfast, lunch, snack and emergency cupboards, with different staff members buying, storing and preparing foods. “There’s a lot of schools that are doing good things, [for example] there’s private caterers in Charlottetown that supply the schools and they’re doing a really great job, so I think that the next step is to find a model, but to recognize that within that model, we can be flexible and that we can allow the communities to choose what’s best for them within the parameters that we decide on,” Palmer said. She concluded by advocating for a proper strategic plan in each school that is flexible for each community.

l-r Bev Campbell, QEES,  Karen Murchison, PEICOPC,  Krista Schurman, Schurman’s Family Farm-participants in theCommunity Food Security and Food Education Program//Photo credit: Cheryl Young/Salty

Stan Chaisson and Philip Pierlot teach at Charlottetown Rural. Last spring they partnered with Phil Ferraro from the Farm Centre to get the school’s greenhouse up and running again, as it had been unused for some time. “Soon enough, with guidance from Phil [Ferraro] and myself, when things started growing, it was almost like they [the students] were back in kindergarten, grade one, they were like, ‘Oh my god, everything’s growing!’, they were really excited about it. And from that point forward, it had a really positive impact on them,” Chaisson said. The recent grant allowed new lighting to be purchased for the greenhouse, a self-watering system is in the works and there are plans for a large outside garden to be planted, with the resulting produce to be used in the school cafeteria.

Hanna Hameline recapped the PEICOPC’s role with QEES, helping to procure local, organic produce for the school’s food programs. With the help of Lee Clarke at Plate It, deliveries of local, organic food were put in place, replacing conventional foods with organic. Hameline noted that the cost differential between conventional and organic produce was not significant, especially since the organic produce was delivered directly to the school. This model worked well in Kensington, but could be more difficult to replicate in other areas of PEI due to distribution costs and increased labour costs for food preparation.

Throughout the session, the audience was asked to brainstorm and discuss some of the issues raised and to determine the best next steps. The conclusion was that there needs to be firm action taken, so that changes can made sooner than later. By creating a vision for food and nutrition in PEI’s education system, and engaging the top political powers, change is possible.

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.

View All Posts