New healthy lunch programs are taking kids’ school meals from greasy to gourmet
Alexandra Shimo – Special to The Globe and Mail • Saturday, February 17, 2007
Around a table in Leslieville, 12 diners discuss the finer points of the freshly cooked meal before them.
“I didn’t used to like the meats, but now I do,” Gregory Mitchell, 6, says reflectively, while pausing over a bite of carrot.
“I like the couscous because my mother makes it at home,” chimes in Chloe Shaw, 8.
The lunch companions, all aged 4 to 10, are enjoying a feast of tilapia filet in a marinade with flax seeds and herbs, the South American grain quinoa, and baby carrots.
It’s a far cry from a typical school lunch. But here at Morse Street Child Care, a publicly funded daycare, healthy catering has replaced hamburgers and fries. That’s because the parents — like others across Toronto, frustrated with the greasy fare their kids are fed — have taken action to lobby for better school food.
Despite the new recommendations by the Canada’s Food Guide this week, Toronto’s schools still continue to serve meals guaranteed to pile on the pounds and create unhealthy eating habits, says Andrea Reynolds, spokeswoman for the Toronto Parent Network. “I hear a lot of complaints from parents about the junk food that is served in our cafeterias,” she says. “Parents are very worried about the student obesity that we are seeing. Many parents are calling for better student nutrition.”
In Ontario, 93 per cent of school boards serve fries. Most Toronto high-school cafeterias offer popular pizzas and hot dogs. But Morse Street, and other daycares run by WoodGreen Community Services, responded to parent pressure by ordering lunches that are more expensive but all-natural and trans-fat-free. The catering company, Real Food for Real Kids, was itself started by a Toronto mother seeking healthy alternatives for her four year old. “I didn’t want our son Max growing up eating junk,” says founder Lulu Cohen-Farnell, whose Jamie Oliver-like program now serves 2,500 children in public and private schools and daycares across Toronto. “I didn’t go into this to make money, but I wanted to make sure that Max was eating high-quality, nutritious food.”
At Real Food for Real Kids, chips have been replaced with organic, whole-wheat pita strips roasted with cinnamon and maple syrup. Hot dogs are out, and free-range chicken sausages are in. The cost for a daycare lunch ($2.80 to $3.50) is more expensive than options from other caterers (around $2), but a growing number of parents believe it is worth it, Ms. Cohen-Farnell says.
“We have parents who are lobbying their schools for us to come in so their children can eat more healthily,” she says. “It’s the parents who are asking for this.”
Still, the switch between the greasy fare and the gourmet meals has been difficult for some of the children, 85 per cent of whom are on income subsidies. Some children rarely eat fresh fish at home and were not used to the taste, says Lori Gray, manager of services at Morse Street. Others hadn’t tried foods like couscous, curries or tofu.
“Many of the children were used to their chicken coming as a breaded nugget, not as a filet with sauce with herbs and spices, “Ms. Gray observes. “They didn’t know how to perceive that. The look of it made them reluctant to try it. Most of the kids really like the food now, but it’s taken months.”
At other schools, parents such as Tammy Heaney-Quick, a mother of four, have tried a different approach. Her children attend James S.Bell Junior Middle School in Etobicoke, which in 2002 started offering a healthy hot lunch four days a week, and then a two-day-a-week salad bar the following year. On salad bar days, there are two different types of bread, five vegetables and five types of fruit, proteins such as cheese or egg, and a hot dish, such as rice with roasted peppers.
The programs are run entirely by parent volunteers, like Ms.Heaney-Quick, who keeps the books, writes grant applications to fund the cost of the food and, when she has a few spare minutes, helps out in the school kitchen chopping vegetables.
“As a working mother of four, it’s difficult to find the time,” she says. “I have to cook at home too. Even doing the grant applications is a huge job — there are 100 kids in our lunch program in a school of 400 kids.”
Therein lies the crux of the issue for Toronto schools, says Debbie Field, executive director of FoodShare Toronto, a non-profit organization that launches voluntary healthy eating programs in schools. Although there has been a growth in voluntary student nutrition programs, with parents running snack and breakfast programs– or trying to compete with the cafeterias — many students are still not getting nutritious meals.
”You go to some schools, and you see the kids eating in the hallways, or going out for a slice of pizza every lunch,” she says.”It’s a totally haphazard arrangement. And when it’s haphazard, it’s the fast-food industry that ends up feeding our kids.”
Preventing that from happening is a struggle for Andrea Reynolds, whose two boys attend Market Lane Public School downtown. She donates money and fundraises for her own school’s healthy lunch program. This year, the program did not receive as many donations, and is struggling financially. To cut costs, they have started accepting donations from the local food bank. The school cook also caters for other schools to raise extra cash. “We operate our healthy-lunch program on a shoestring,” Ms. Reynolds says.
“In previous years, we have introduced a salad bar, but I’m not sure we’d have the volunteers or the money to do it this year.”
In response to concerns about student nutrition and the general environment, provincial Education Minister Kathleen Wynne and Health Promotion Minister Jim Watson have issued a challenge to Ontario’s schools. Every secondary school that starts a program to encourage healthy living — either by preventing bullying, promoting healthy eating and mental health or pushing physical education — will receive $1,000.
A good start, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough, says Lucy Valleau, a dietitian and chair of the school nutrition work group for the Ontario Society of Nutrition Professions in Public Health. In 2004, Ms. Valleau co-wrote a report calling for Ontario schools to intervene on student nutrition. Three years later, she says, most of those recommendations still need to be addressed.
“Schools should prioritize healthy behaviour and they are not,” Ms.Valleau says. “We need the province to make a clear commitment to this. Otherwise, we are encouraging our children to form unhealthy habits that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.”[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]