Twenty fourteen was an exciting year to engage in conversations around ‘good food’ in schools. At the recent Food Secure Canada (FSC) conference, hosted in Halifax during November, there were multiple sessions on this very topic. The FSC coordinates a Coalition for Healthy School Food, and those interested in staying connected can join The Children and Food Network, which both supports and connects people working on children’s food and nutrition initiatives across Canada. The primary goal is to have impact, influence and strong community voices shaping the policies that affect us, by working to raise the bar on school food programs—ensuring through research & action that all children will have access to healthy food at school. One of the network priorities is to create a national school food program.
A major highlight of the conference for me, as retold here, was learning about the school food programs underway across Canada, as well as sharing ideas and practices for initiating and evaluating such programs. These exciting conversations culminated in a conference session entitled “Dialogues with Members of Parliament”, where panelists made cases for different priorities of implementation, with recommendations for policy introduction or changes. Debbie Field of FoodShare presented the case for a national school food nutrition program, which both the NDP and Liberals committed to supporting if elected (you can watch videos & read a review of other FSC conference conversations in our last blog post)
Good Food First club– what’s it all about?
It was also a great year for teaching cooking & gardening to kids, contributing to the national network’s call for policy change, with on the ground workshops. The EAC food team saw this first-hand through the coordination of the Good Food First club.
Since the Fall of 2013, the Good Food First club has been meeting at four schools in Halifax. Primarily focused at upper-elementary students, the club teaches students about the cycle of our food using a field to fork approach. With the help of awesome volunteer garden committees, interested citizens, teachers and parents, the program increases access to and knowledge of healthy and local food. This is achieved through delivering fun, educational workshops in the garden & kitchen. More broadly, the aim of the project is to engage youth in thinking critically about where their food comes from.
What we did in 2014
With the support of 20+ volunteers, the program was coordinated in both the spring and fall of 2014. In total, 117 students were enrolled in the club, with 40 Good Food First workshops, and 2 school wide planting days. Each workshop had a theme with gardening & cooking activities to match. These included workshops on soil & composting, learning about companion planting techniques, nutrition from the garden, understanding what different plant parts we can grow and eat, exploring the garden and saving seeds, acting as food detectives to better understand the difference between processed and whole foods, and mapping out where our food is coming from!
Two partnering schools and garden committees coordinated school lunch days—where kids harvested ingredients from the gardens and used them to create a delicious meal for the entire school. We also supported and delivered 5 in-class workshops, which included building an herb spiral with three grade 8 classes. We built new partnerships with two new schools to offer other in-class programming, working with teachers and environmental club leaders to link the activities to the curriculum and flow of the school day.
“One common remark from a student was ‘I don’t like such and such food’ but once they tried it after preparing it themselves, 9 times out of 10 they enjoyed it! Including them in the food preparation definitely made a difference” – Program volunteer, 2014
There were a lot of memorable moments, conversations, perceived benefits and surveyed feedback from students & parents. There was also opportunity to learn how best to engage children in these activities. To capture some of this information I’ve formed a highlights reel below:
1) Kids will try new foods if they are involved in the whole food prep process. We saw the increased interest in eating vegetables and fruits when involved from harvesting to preparing and serving the meal.
2) Building relationships while getting our hands dirty with garden soil. I’ve recognized that there is a sense of ownership and routine evolving from the club. For example, it has been renamed by students to the “veggie club!” and “better food first!”
3) Enthusiasm about FOOD! Students were always ready to help with harvesting and preparing the meals and were excited to eat the bounty of their labour! Also, the opportunity to be in the kitchen and use kitchen tools is novel for many children, as demonstrated by conversations and comments like “I’ve never cut a vegetable before!” – Program participant, 2014
4) Pride & confidence: in learning new skills & taking care of living things. At one school, a 10 year old boy had been the care taker of tomato plants in his class. He looked after these during class time and the tomatoes grew very well. He reminded kids, when we planted them in the garden, to take care when putting them in the ground.
5) Increasing community involvement at schools. The Oxford stone soup day was a perfect example of this. It was inspiring to see school teachers/administrators, community organizations and members (myself, garden volunteers, the chef from European Pantry), and students joining together to make a school lunch day occur. There was a lot of pride and kids seemed to enjoy all elements of the day -the harvesting, cooking and eating, of course.
6) Positive parent feedback. In our 2014 parent surveys we received a lot of great feedback on the benefits of the program. Parents described the program as being “life-learning”, “engaging”, “innovative”, and “confidence-building”. They also told us about the significant effects they’ve seen in their children after participating in the program, including: “more interest in making food and how it is grown”, “a much greater interest in where her food comes from and the confidence to prepare her food”, and “a bigger interest in cooking and in trying new foods. ie: rice paper rolls!!”.
7) Many students were interested in repeat visits to the program—students who had been in the program in previous years or earlier sessions wanted to know if they could participate in the future.
Creating opportunities for kids to try new foods
“We don’t expect children to master riding a bike without a little practice and training. Nor do we expect them to succeed in calculus without first learning algebra. Why, then, are children expected to immediately like new foods without a little instruction or practice? Research says kids need to try new foods anywhere from 7 to 15 times before they acquire a taste for them. Farm to school activities serve as the “training wheels” that introduce children to new food options, setting them up for a lifelong ride of healthy eating.” – Farm to School article
Research on Farm to School and cooking programs demonstrate that kids need to try new foods anywhere between 7 to 15 times before they acquire a taste for them. Programs that introduce kids to new food options can encourage these healthy lifestyles and habits. A recent review concludes cooking classes may be a “promising tool” to promote positive changes in children’s food preferences and behaviours:
“Cooking classes could help children to eat more fruits and vegetables and try new foods, a new review of research suggests. Public health officials are searching for ways to promote healthful eating, given the rise of childhood obesity and a shift away from cooking at home. Now a review of eight studies concludes cooking classes may be a “promising tool” to promote positive changes in children’s food preferences, attitudes and behaviours.” – CBC article, Nov. 6th, 2014
So here’s to 2015, and to creating more opportunities for kids to have the access, skills & knowledge for growing, preparing and eating healthy food!
Written by Laura Mather (laura@ ecologyaction.ca)