Given the choice between a salad bar or lunch packed by mom, a surprising number of students at Mountview Elementary go for the lettuce and mustard greens.
At the tiny school in Williams Lake, B.C., 160 out of 200 students line up on Tuesdays and Thursdays to munch on asparagus, broccoli or snap peas and tuck into dishes such as bison-vegetable chili.
The school opened the salad bar two years ago as part of British Columbia's Farm to School network, which aims to include children in the locavore movement. This fall, two dozen schools in the province will offer an array of vegetables, fruit and heartier fare, using ingredients supplied by independent butchers and nearby farms.
Public health educator Joanne Bays founded B.C.'s Farm to School program in 2007 to support local food producers and meet the nutritional needs of school-aged children. "Kids are getting the best foods and farmers are finding a market," she says.
At Mountview Elementary, students pay $2 to $4 (depending on age) for the all-you-can-eat lunch. (The school has a sponsorship program for kids who can't afford it.)
The veggie-infused dishes have done wonders, says Rick Miller, principal of the kindergarten to Grade 7 school.
Teachers have noticed higher energy levels and better concentration among students in the afternoon classes, especially on salad bar days, he says.
"They're happier kids, they're more stable and we don't have things like arguments and fights," he says. "We just think it's because they're well fed."
Child hunger and obesity are flipsides of the same coin, says Ms. Bays, project manager of B.C.'s Farm to School program. As more farmers retire or get squeezed out by industrial agriculture, she says, "we are losing the capacity to feed ourselves that local fresh food."
Farm to School offers grants to upgrade school kitchens, which are often the size of broom closets and serve little other than hot dogs, she says. Grants are shared with local farmers to invest in greenhouse growing, transportation and storage equipment.
Run by the Public Health Association of BC, Farm to School is funded by school districts, health authorities, municipalities and private sponsors. The program strives to support local food producers and educate children about where healthy meals come from, Ms. Bays says.
Students visit farms and greenhouses to learn about how fruit and vegetables are grown. In some cases, they help prepare local produce in "farm to cafeteria" programs that have flourished in schools such as David Thompson Secondary in Invermere, B.C.
Similar programs exist across Canada. FoodShare Toronto has organized school salad bars using local ingredients since 2002, though without direct involvement from farmers.
B.C.'s Farm to School is the fastest growing program in Canada and the only one co-ordinated at the provincial level. Ms. Bays plans to expand it into a national Farm to School network, starting with a series of town-hall meetings this fall, she says.
Farm to School has taken root in Victoria, Nanaimo, the Cowichan Valley and the Interior, with many more programs planned for schools in Richmond and Vancouver.
The model works in privileged as well as low-income communities, Ms. Bays says.
In Hazelton, B.C., the vast majority of parents who send their children to John Field Elementary School on the Gitanmaax Reserve are unemployed.
The community elders were used to paying $1 for each school lunch, Ms. Bays says, "so our innovation became to provide the salad bar for $2."
Farm to School co-ordinators reduced the variety of vegetables from six to five and the fruit from three to two, and added foods such as fish and moose meat, which the students participated in hunting and gathering.
It took flexibility and "a bit of working with the elders," Ms. Bays says.
Each salad bar represents the combined efforts of farmers, community nutritionists, teachers, administrators and parents, as well as cooks who get creative with produce such as sunchokes and rutabagas - especially in winter, when fresh greens are scarce.
Northern communities face the challenges of a short growing season and a paucity of independent farmers, which force some schools to buy up to 80 per cent of their winter salad bar ingredients from the grocery store. This underscores the need to increase farming and food storage at the local level, Ms. Bays says.
Turning kids into root-vegetable fans is easier in elementary schools because the students "can't drive off in their cars to McDonald's," she says. Nevertheless, the salad bars have thrived in high schools where students are involved in harvesting and food preparation, and convince their peers to break the junk food habit, she adds.
At Mountview Elementary, kids try foods at the salad bar that they won't eat at home, says Loretta Weingart, whose two children, aged 9 and 10, take an hour-long bus ride to school each way from their home on the Alkali Lake Reserve.
The family eats a lot of meat, she says, and for lunches, she normally packs things such as pizza, chicken or ravioli.
But Ms. Weingart says she appreciates the days when the school salad bar feeds her kids. "I look forward to it and I think they do too."