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Why school food matters: Kings County woman wants to see better foods in cafeterias this September

Grace Walsh, a Primary student at Berwick Elementary School, tries out the new salad bar at the school.
Grace Walsh, a Primary student at Berwick Elementary School, tries out the new salad bar at the school. - Contributed

BURLINGTON, NS - There may be a couple of months left before parents have to think about packing lunch bags, but a Burlington woman is hoping to see a revolution in terms of school food this September.

“What if I told you we could teach our children and their families the joy of lifelong healthy eating, improve classroom behaviour and curriculum delivery, nourish hungry kids, and improve the economy in our own communities - all while removing the hassle and drudgery of packing kids' lunches?” asks Jenny Osburn.

Formerly co-owner of the Union Street Café, and now director of FarmWorks, an organization that works to increase access to a sustainable local food supply for all Nova Scotians, Osburn knows about food. She has met with farmers and food producers and learned more about the importance of supporting food production closer to home.

“At the same time, I've gained awareness about the state of school food from a health and education perspective, that when kids eat better, their health, behaviour and educational outcomes improve,” she said.

READ MORE:

• Healthy initiatives happening in some Kings County schools

School food is also a social justice issue, especially in an area where one in five children come from a food-insecure household, she adds.

Osburn says that at many schools, the nutrition policy is largely ignored and there is no formalized way to ensure hungry kids are well fed.

She believes there’s a real opportunity here in the Valley to bring these concerns together and start a conversation about making changes in the right direction.

“Public health nutritionists, school health promoters from the Healthy Communities Team, staff at the Regional Centre for Education and many others have been tackling this challenge for much longer and know much more about it than I do, but the idea behind Better School Food Annapolis Valley and its corresponding Facebook group is to connect this knowledge with as many parents and interested people as possible. Collectively we can start to make things better,” says Osburn.

Berwick School recently launched a salad bar to encourage healthy eating. From left are cafeteria workers Janey Right and Barb Henshaw, principal Bill Soucet, health promoter Sarah Mullen and FarmWorks director Jenny Osburn.
Berwick School recently launched a salad bar to encourage healthy eating. From left are cafeteria workers Janey Right and Barb Henshaw, principal Bill Soucet, health promoter Sarah Mullen and FarmWorks director Jenny Osburn.

Financial challenges

One of the biggest challenges, says Osburn, is that cafeterias need to be profitable, or at least break even. This was a shock to Osburn and the many parents she spoke to. It's difficult to cover the cost of nutritious, good quality food and employee wages and benefits when the customers are children – and, Osburn explains, if the cafeteria does not break even, it will be closed, and the worker will lose his or her job.

No one monitors or provides support to enforce the nutrition standards, negotiate bulk buying discounts or help with distribution, she adds. Cafeteria workers are expected to come up with recipes, plan menus, procure all supplies and food products, tally orders, interact constantly with students, balance the books, cook the food, serve it in a very short time and keep the kitchen clean.

Due to cost-saving measures, cafeteria workers have just a few hours a day to accomplish this, so many work additional unpaid hours. It takes specialized skills, proper equipment and excellent management to run a cafeteria efficiently and effectively, she says, but the current salaries are generally not attracting chefs and skilled cooks, she says.

“This isn't finger pointing; it's just how it's evolved,” says Osburn. “We all to need to know this so we can work on fixing it.”

That’s why, in many cases, school administrators elect to hire companies to provide cafeteria food.

“Multinational corporations have tremendous buying power and certainly know their business, but that doesn't mean they always serve healthy food or are the best solution for nourishing our kids,” she says.

There is value to the economy in offering healthy food – she cites figures that indicate spending a dollar on local food returns an average of $2.16 into our local economy, while spending a dollar on imported food sees that money leave the community. Osburn wants to see a commitment – both through community support and financial – to transition to better food so workers aren't at risk. She adds that it’s been shown that when shifting to a healthy lunch program, sales initially drop, then rebound and surpass the previous sales as more students engage with the program over a period of months.

Adding to the budget line, statistics show that less than 30 per cent of kids order lunch at school. Many students and parents won't buy lunch at school when it's not nutritious, says Osburn. That’s something that needs to be addressed, she adds, because increasing the volume of sales is critical within the current system.

“I think about myself and all of the parents who run out and buy the packaged lunch stuff that our kids want in their lunchbox,” she said. “Much of that food is highly processed, low in nutrients, wrapped in plastic and quite expensive. A school lunch can cost less, be healthier and be much less hassle for parents.”

Providing cafeteria staff with training, supports and the proper equipment so they can cook quality food from scratch is key, she says. Highly processed, packaged food is easy to store, procure and prepare, but is often much more expensive and of poor quality, she adds.

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No national lunch program

Unlike every other country in the industrialized world, Canada does not have a national lunch program. That can change, she says, but people need to recognize the value of it.

As far as government support goes, the province has already seen the value of universal breakfast programs and has increased funding from $1.1 million to $1.975 million for school food province-wide.

“I'm hoping we can use some of that towards healthy snacks and lunches,” says Osburn.

Grants are available to run various school programs through organizations like the community health boards. For example, Osburn says the funding for a salad bar launched last spring at Berwick School came from Provincial Healthy School Communities that each school in Nova Scotia receives. Other schools sell Nourish Your Roots farm boxes to raise funds.

And, she adds, you never know who in the community is watching and willing to support a project. For example, the day the salad bar was launched in Berwick, Osburn got a call from The Rolled Oat in Wolfville, offering financial support for the program.

“We can't underestimate the value of potential community support for healthy school food,” she says.

In a perfect world, what does Osburn envision?

“I'd love to see every kid at our schools receive a decent lunch each day and have the time to eat it. I'd like them to see and smell real food being prepared and have the opportunity to help with the cooking, serving and even cleaning up<’ she says.

“I'd like students to learn more about food and where it comes from, and for more of what is served be grown locally. That's just good for our economy and our taste buds. I want cafeterias to be seen not as separate mini restaurants trying to operate within a school, but instead be incorporated into the learning environment and contribute to school curriculum and education outcomes. And I'd like all that to happen with the assistance of subsidies and community fundraising so that every student can participate in the joy of good food, regardless of their ability to pay.”

Go online: For parents who would like to continue the conversation and learn more, Osburn encourages people to join the Better School Food Annapolis Valley Facebook group. An information session is planned for September. 

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