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Grade 12 Culinary students from right to left Sophia Lee, Jordan Pham and Victor Bak harvest herbs in the garden at Windermere Secondary School in Vancouver. (Rafal Gerszak For The Globe and Mail)
Grade 12 Culinary students from right to left Sophia Lee, Jordan Pham and Victor Bak harvest herbs in the garden at Windermere Secondary School in Vancouver. (Rafal Gerszak For The Globe and Mail)

Food

Farm-to-School program boosts health of students and food economy Add to ...

Students who line up for lunch at the 50 or so salad bars that have cropped up in British Columbia school cafeterias are in the midst of a big undertaking.

As they load up on local greens, root vegetables, eggs and cheese, these youngsters are fortifying themselves and the province’s local food system; they are also sketching the blueprint for a unique program with national aspirations and the potential to recalibrate how the leaders of tomorrow view food.

Called Farm-to-School, the program matches participating schools with farmers or small networks of growers who are paid fair market value to supply produce. It teaches students about more than just the food chain by integrating health, environmental studies, sociology, economics and agriculture. Inspired by a Toronto-based school-salad-bar model pioneered by the food-change organization FoodShare, it was launched four years ago by a community nutritionist bent on getting more fresh fruits and vegetables into B.C. schools.

“We were worried about the fact that there were so many children eating too much of the wrong things [who are]overweight or obese. On the other end of the spectrum, we have a lot of children who can’t get enough of the right things to eat,” said the nutritionist, Joanne Bays. “Kids’ opportunities to access healthy foods were less than optimal.”

Nutritionists in B.C. are mandated by the public-health authority to address community food security – ensuring that people have safe and nutritious food. For Ms. Bays, the ideal school solution was one that also boosted the food economy in urban areas and remote regions where farming has died off or is dwindling. She focused her project on areas where processed food is cheaper than fresh alternatives. Seed funding from the Premier’s office for salad-bar and kitchen construction, greenhouses and gardening tools paid to jump-start the program in 16 schools.

The money has long since run out, but the program, which Ms. Bays oversees, continues to balloon. This year, more than 50 schools across the province will operate the program, which costs students between $3 and $5 a day.

“This has taken on a life of its own and we’re not dependent on the government for subsidies to make it happen,” Ms. Bays said. “We’ve got communities engaged in doing it.”

The results have been transformative. In Chetwynd, a small, northeastern B.C. town in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, the popularity of the school salad bar has regenerated the community’s interest in producing fresh food: Several gardens have been launched to supply the salad bar; the town now grows enough to support a farmers’ market, and curiosity about cooking is growing, particularly among youth.

“We have 11-year-old boys asking for recipes of stuffed mushrooms,” said Marcie Fofonoff, the district’s former healthy communities co-ordinator. “Or we have them saying they can make bread at home. The objective was to expand the palette, get them to try different foods.”

Debbie Field, director of Toronto’s FoodShare, which started the nation’s first school-salad-bar program, said students’ enthusiasm is proof that kids aren’t only interested in eating junk food.

“People tell you that kids won’t eat healthy,” she said. “We’ve proven that they’ll eat it.”

For advocates of food culture change, winning over these young palettes is the holy grail. By the time students reach high school, many argue, their food habits are too entrenched to change.

“If we go back to teaching some of the basics at the younger age, we’re beginning to form children who will not forget those as they grow old,” said Carol Henry, an associate professor of nutrition at the University of Saskatchewan who studies school food in Canada. “By the time they get to high school, it’s a little too late. In elementary school, they’ll still listen.”

Paolo Di Croce is international director of the Italy-based Slow Food, an organization with a global campaign to persuade educators to use food at school to teach lessons on farming, gardening, industrial food production and its environmental impacts. The value of doing so is in the multiplier effect, he explained.

“If you teach young children, they influence their families,” Mr. Di Croce said.

The payback, some argue, will have a much broader reach.

At Windermere Secondary School in Vancouver, students grow and cook food for the school cafeteria and elementary feeder schools. They also use bicycles to transport compost from the feeders back to their greenhouse.

Principal Maria Taddei said the program teaches students about the inherent interconnectivity of nutrition, environmental science, social studies and health.

“It creates in a student more global-minded thinking,” she said. “We’re growing leaders.”

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