Feeding People: School daze: where’s lunch?

A complete school food system could be much more than donated food.

by Kristine Kowalchuk

Just a few decades ago, student hunger was almost unheard of as a problem in Alberta. I recall from my own elementary school days that while few of the kids were from families one might call well off, when the noontime bell rang, everyone sat down with their lunch kits and ate homemade food that involved very little processing or packaging. Why was this the norm? It was not because of money. It was because we had a functioning food system and culture. People had easy access to good food, and most people knew what to do with it.

Today, the situation is completely different. In 2016, the Alberta College of Social Workers, Public Interest Alberta, and the Edmonton Social Planning Council released a report called The Path Forward, in which they note that there was a 23 per cent increase in food bank use in 2015 over the previous year in Alberta, and 41 per cent of the individuals using food banks were children.

The reasons are complex, tying to social and cultural changes, industrial farming, and even urban planning — many neighborhoods are now food deserts, meaning there are no resources providing healthy food. The stat is reflected in schools: many students arrive with empty stomachs and without a lunch.

My own family became aware of this issue in 2002. After reading about student hunger in a newspaper article, my parents started up Food for Thought, a grassroots program they and their friends directly funded to provide hot lunches to the school profiled in the article.

Since then, Food for Thought has evolved in a number of ways. We now have a volunteer board and reside under the umbrella of the Edmonton Public School Foundation; we now serve thirteen schools; and rather than providing hot lunches (which was logistically complicated), we provide ingredients and allow each school to tailor the program to fit its needs. The stipulations: we offer only whole, healthy foods, and we aim to minimize food waste. Apples, carrots, bagels, and black beans are in; juice boxes, granola bars, and yogurt tubes are out.

We are far from alone in providing food for students. In Edmonton, E4C provides snacks for students in 26 schools and lunch in nine. Churches, bakeries, small businesses, and charitable groups donate to schools across the city. Most schools benefit from multiple organizations including the Food Bank, and cobble together support from the various groups to (hopefully) meet their students’ food needs.

Schools like Highlands and Jasper Place have managed to create admirable food and permaculture programs, although neither program is scalable or likely even sustainable as they depend upon the direct involvement of a single individual — principal Brad Burns of Highlands spends two evenings every week picking up donated groceries, while teacher Dustin Bajer is also a master gardener with permaculture expertise. And there is one problem: the need continues to increase.

In 2016, the provincial government announced a pilot program to provide students with a daily nutritious meal or snack. For the 2017/18 school year, the program is expanding to all school boards. This is, of course, a positive first step: a daily healthy meal is far better than what many of these students are currently getting. But as those of us familiar with the problem recognize, there is much more we need to do if we’re to not only satisfy immediate hunger, but resolve its underlying causes in the first place.

Alberta Food Matters, a local non-profit and member of Food Secure Canada, has been leading the way on this topic. Over the past few years, it has advocated for a Universal School Food Strategy that provides not only food, but also food education. As board chair Susan Roberts notes, AFM believes all kids at school should have access to healthy food; learn about food and be involved in cooking and growing their food at school; understand where their food comes from and see the value of ecologically sound food sources; and learn about food through a comprehensive school curriculum, which includes how the food system works.

For such a strategy to be possible, schools must have kitchens, lunchrooms, and gardens. Summertime tending of the gardens could be taken on by members of the community – another benefit of which would be engaging elderly neighbours who could pass on their knowledge to the students. Each school would also need a chef who involves the students in the growing and preparation of food. This all creates a system that strengthens food knowledge, brings people together through food culture, increases local food security and resolves hunger.

If this sounds like a tall order, head to Maskwacis and see the job chef Scott Hall is already doing at Ermineskin Junior Senior High School, with a program funded by the band. I arrived one June morning to the sound of powerful drumming in the foyer, while everyone was polishing off blueberry pancakes and sausages. Students grabbed fruit from a giant bowl as they rushed off to class.

A rack in the kitchen held 120 perfectly-shaped homemade pizza crusts that Scott, who used to be a professional baker, had begun two days before; 600 cookies were cooling on another rack. Scott was in the process of directing five students to open giant cans of tomato sauce before turning to me and another group to task us with making salads for the daily salad bar.

There’s nothing like spending time in a kitchen with a chef to illuminate one’s own terrible knife skills. (Suffice to say, I learned a lot about how to slice a whole watermelon, although my onion-chopping skills still need work.) As I lamented that I’m too old to learn how to use a knife properly, the three students with whom I worked did a superb job with the pineapples and tomatoes.

This shows the importance of Scott’s work: with just one full-time assistant and a rotating roster of about twelve students a day, he not only provides healthy food (breakfast, lunch, and an afternoon snack) for the entire school and the kindergarten next door, he is also teaching the students important food knowledge and cooking skills. (A number of students have gone on to culinary school.) He does all the shopping, and sources much from local producers – including grass-fed meat from a nearby Hutterite colony, which he buys in large cuts and slices himself at the school to save money. The grand total in 2016 for this work: 72 cents per student per day.

So besides the benefits listed above, food programs also make good economic sense. Scott noted he’d recently heard of a U of A study that showed that for every dollar invested in school food programs, there is a twenty-dollar return over a lifetime. Considering he is teaching skills as well as providing food, and that next year he plans to put in a small farm behind the school to grow more food onsite, the return here is certainly even greater. Of course, all that counts can’t be counted, and really what we are talking about is improvement in health and quality of life.

This, I would say, is the model we need across the province. Scott readily agrees it’s possible; it would just require basic infrastructure, a support staff member, and an education-minded chef. Then the students themselves, he said, are capable of preparing all the food. (And they’ll expertly chop the onions.)

Kristine Kowalchuk lives, writes, and teaches English in Edmonton. She would love to see Alberta school curriculum focus on healthy food growing and culture.