Toronto Star

Healthy fare in schools? It’s food for thought

On­tario stu­dents un­der­stand lo­cal food is more nu­tri­tious, tastier and green-friendly

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Erin Bea­gle un­der­stands the power of lo­cal food.

She’s seen it trans­form the minds and tum­mies of stu­dents in Thun­der Bay, Ont., where she runs the Roots to Harvest pro­gram in the city’s high schools. With the catchy catch­phrase “punks grow­ing food,” Roots to Harvest lever­ages the al­lure of lo­cal food to ed­u­cate and mo­ti­vate kids in high schools across the city. Not only do they learn how to grow and pre­pare fresh food, they also study how the food sys­tem works and why it mat­ters.

The kids get it, she says. In fact, they’re way ahead of it — young peo­ple un­der­stand that fresh lo­cal food is tastier, nu­tri­tious, bet­ter for the en­vi­ron­ment and has ma­jor eco­nomic ben­e­fits.

Even the school’s more ca­sual at­ten­dees make it to class when the punks are in the house.

“We get kids com­ing to the schools be­cause they know we’ll be in the gar­dens or cook­ing and they can eat good food,” Bea­gle says.

On­tario’s schools are a hot­bed for lo­cal food ad­vo­cacy, among both the stu­dents and the change agents that work with teach­ers to get kids di­rectly in­volved with the things they eat.

The power of lo­cal food as an eco­nomic driver is well doc­u­mented, but many feel it’s still con­sid­ered a “nice to have” rather than a “must have” in our pub­lic in­sti­tu­tions.

Eleven per cent of On­tar­i­ans — or one in nine — are di­rectly or in­di­rectly em­ployed by the agri-food sys­tem, which gen­er­ates more than $63 bil­lion of eco­nomic ac­tiv­ity.

Since 2003, the pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment has spent $160 mil­lion to pro­mote lo­cal food. Ad­vo­cates would like more ac­tion, such as lo­cal pro­cure­ment quo­tas, more ef­forts around food lit­er­acy through ed­u­ca­tion and out­reach pro­grams, and sup­port to help launch and in­te­grate a new gen­er­a­tion of farm­ers and food-ser­vice busi­nesses into the sys­tem.

On­tario’s Broader Pub­lic Sec­tor (BPS) in­sti­tu­tions — hos­pi­tals, school boards, uni­ver­si­ties, col­leges and mu­nic­i­pally run long-term care fa­cil­i­ties — spend about $750 mil­lion a year on food, ac­cord­ing to a re­port pre­pared by Food and Bev­er­age On­tario (2014).

As of 2014, On­tario had 48 uni­ver­si­ties and col­leges, 919 sec­ondary schools and 3,974 ele­men­tary schools. School nutri­tion pro­grams (SNPs) and in-school cafe­te­rias serve about two mil­lion stu­dents each year.

“(Schools) are in­sti­tu­tions that are owned by the peo­ple of On­tario and the think­ing is that we should be sup­port­ing our farm­ers.” BURKHARD MAUSBERG CEO OF THE GREEN­BELT FOUN­DA­TION AND THE GREEN­BELT FUND

“These are in­sti­tu­tions that are owned by the peo­ple of On­tario and the think­ing is that we should be sup­port­ing our farm­ers,” says Burkhard Mausberg, CEO of the Green­belt Foun­da­tion and the Green­belt Fund. Ac­cord­ing to Green­belt re­search, ev­ery dol­lar in­vested trans­lates to a $13 in­crease in lo­cal food sales.

This year, FoodShare cel­e­brates the 10th an­niver­sary of the Big Crunch, which rallies school­child­ren across the province to bite into a lo­cal ap­ple at the same time.

The ges­ture helps align young minds with ac­tual agri­cul­tural out­put, while the Green­belt Fund helps with the pur­chase of 10,000 On­tario ap­ples.

“The beauty of this is its sim­plic­ity,” says FoodShare’s Brooke Ziebel. FoodShare’s Food to Ta­ble Schools is an award-win­ning teach­ing pro­gram for stu­dents from JK to Grade 12. “Teach­ers are re­ally hun­gry for that kind of in­for­ma­tion.”

A new FoodShare project hap­pen- ing in 10 On­tario schools in­volves a Good Food Ma­chine with two aero­ponic (no soil, just mist and oxy­gen) tower gar­dens, an Ap­ple iMac and a mo­bile cook­ing cart. Stu­dents grow and cook their own snacks. It’s based on the Green Bronx Ma­chine project in New York, which re­sulted in a 35-per-cent in­crease in stu­dents’ en­joy­ment of fruits and vegetables and 90 per cent of stu­dents mak­ing health­ier food choices.

“I think it’s a re­ally ex­cit­ing time for ed­u­ca­tion in food lit­er­acy and we’re headed in the right di­rec­tion,” Ziebel says. “The Min­istry of Ed­u­ca­tion is now one of our big­gest part­ners and al­lies.

“But we re­ally need a Min­istry of Food.”

On­tario’s ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tions may be primed for more lo­cal food, but there are chal­lenges to get­ting it there. Years of re­liance on junk food or “rethermed” pro­cessed foods have per­pet­u­ated a sys­tem that is not easy to adapt, even when there is de­mand for change. But those de­mands are get­ting louder.

“When stu­dents make lo­cal food de­ci­sions, they re­ally do ap­ply the bal­ance of sus­tain­abil­ity. Yes, it’s about the en­vi­ron­ment, but also about health and well­ness,” says Alan Grif­fiths of Mo­hawk Col­lege in Hamil­ton. A new project at Mo­hawk is study­ing ways to in­crease lo­cal food pro­cure­ment at all 24 of On­tario’s col­leges. (See “A healthy hunger on cam­pus” below.)

Founded in 2004, Real Foods for Real Kids (RFRK) is a Toronto-based com­pany launched by a hus­band and wife who were fed up with the poor qual­ity of food in their chil­dren’s day­care. They got started us­ing a lo­cal cater­ing kitchen in off-hours, cook­ing meals from scratch with only real in­gre­di­ents. About a year ago, they moved into their fourth lo­ca­tion, a 30,000+ square-foot fa­cil­ity with state-of-the-art equip­ment and pro­cesses.

While the de­mand is cer­tainly there — RFRK brings “real” foods to schools, day­cares and camps and they plan to ex­pand into Hamil­ton this year — chal­leng­ing the sta­tus quo and taste buds at the same time is a never-end­ing bat­tle.

“We serve 15,000 kids a day,” CEO David Far­nell says. “Among our com­pe­ti­tion, we’ve seen them shift and change. At least their mar­ket­ing has changed, but I don’t know if their con­tent has changed. We’ve clearly im­pacted the ap­proach to dis­cussing kids’ food.”

There is a lin­ger­ing per­cep­tion that lo­cal food costs more, which ad­vo­cates say is no longer a valid ex­cuse.

Roots to Harvest’s pro­gram at West­gate Col­le­giate has stu­dents run­ning a café that serves food made with lo­cal in­gre­di­ents.

“The max­i­mum a stu­dent will pay is $6, and that will get some­thing like a home­made pizza and salad, and it’s all built from scratch,” Bea­gle says. “It’s cheaper than McDonald’s.”

Food ad­vo­cate Joshna Ma­haraj was brought in to re­vamp Ry­er­son Univer­sity’s food ser­vice in 2013.

“The only rea­son change hap­pened is be­cause the stu­dents were so dis­sat­is­fied. They lit­er­ally oc­cu­pied the pres­i­dent’s of­fice,” she says.

She set about bring­ing lo­cal food pro­duc­ers into the univer­sity’s pro­cure­ment process.

“Bet­ter food in schools is low-hang­ing fruit,” Ma­haraj says. “It’s re­ally not a big ex­pense com­pared to deal­ing with diet-re­lated ill­ness on the other side.”

But, she stresses, it’s up to “the peo­ple” to ad­vo­cate for bet­ter food.

“It won’t just hap­pen on its own.”

 ?? KAE­LAN KAR­JALAINEN ?? Toronto-based Real Foods for Real Kids feeds 15,000 kids a day. About a year ago, the or­ga­ni­za­tion moved into a fa­cil­ity with a state-of-the-art kitchen.
KAE­LAN KAR­JALAINEN Toronto-based Real Foods for Real Kids feeds 15,000 kids a day. About a year ago, the or­ga­ni­za­tion moved into a fa­cil­ity with a state-of-the-art kitchen.

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