The Healthy School Foods Program has adjusted its menu this term to offer items more familiar to Island students.
“Some families loved the old menu,” said Katelyn McLean, the registered dietitian who has been leading the program. “But maybe the menu items were a bit too unfamiliar, especially in rural areas.”
As a food literacy initiative, last semester’s pay-what-you-can lunch menu included items intended to introduce students to new ingredients and foods such as butter chicken, hummus or taco bowls.
Some of the lesser known items discouraged some students from ordering the meals rather than trying new foods, according to Ms MacLean.
Through talking with parents and students, she has witnessed, the definition of familiar food varies greatly in the province.
“When we were developing the new menu and asking some students what they thought, we tried chili with a roll. One of the students had never heard of chili before. This student was in Grade 6.”
Ms MacLean explained that the menu will continue to offer foods that are new to some. Providing hot, healthy foods daily even if they are familiar is still a component of food literacy.
The pay-what-you-can model continues to ensure equitable access to healthy food for all students. This may be even more crucial as families deal with economic fallout from the pandemic.
Ms MacLean didn’t have specific numbers but families paying the full price of $5 for a meal is less than projected.
“There are a lot of factors going into that. One being we launched this program in the middle of a pandemic,” she said.
Overall the program has been well received. Local vendors had served more than 235,000 meals to Island students by the program’s 24th week running in February.
Jayme Brown, Marlee Howlett and Lauren Howlett, Grade 7 students at Souris Regional School have all tried the lunches. They say the program is something that should definitely continue.
“It’s great to have a reasonable price for lunches that are good quality,” said Marlee who knows not everyone in her school can afford a cafeteria meal every day.
“Some of it is amazing; for the most part it is really good,” Lauren said.
Occasionally Lauren has skipped items that didn’t personally appeal to her.
“There was a stir-fry I just wouldn’t eat,” she said.
The group, however, loves items such as pulled pork and potatoes or spaghetti. They all noted the menu appears to have improved over time.
Ms MacLean said that could be attributed to vendors getting used to the flow of things or to the work necessary to come up with a new menu and with Canada’s Smartest Kitchen. Canada’s Smartest Kitchen helped Ms MacLean and her team to thoroughly review what students would like and helped to refine recipe instructions right down to the weights of each ingredient.
Jack Kristinsin is in Grade 3 at Souris Regional.
After finishing a meal he approved of (carrots, mashed potatoes, turkey and gravy) he said he likes the lunches most of the time because he gets a nice hot meal rather than a sandwich that gets “squished” in his lunch box.
Just as his peers said, Jack doesn’t like all of the meals.
Chloe LaBrech, in Grade 12, says she likes the convenience of pre-ordering online. She doesn’t have to rush in the morning to make a lunch and cafeteria food can be expensive.
Ms MacLean sees improving food literacy and maximizing the program’s potential as a marathon of work rather than a sprint.
“It’s something that will evolve.”
Ms MacLean looks forward to reviewing Island schools’ curriculum and identifying gaps that could be filled.
Right now Food Literacy items are learned in science, health, home economics and cooking classes.
“I think we’ve already done a good job of incorporating nutrition information and the Canada Food Guide information into the curriculum,” she said.
Other areas of Food Literacy could likely use some attention, Ms MacLean said.
“Where does our food come from, how do you grow it? How do you prepare it? How does a potato get from the ground to our plate?”
She expects Island students could gain a better understanding of answers to these questions.
Right now various local food vendors make and deliver the hot meals to most Island schools. However a non-profit has been developed and its board is looking to hire and organize staff to prepare and deliver the meals possibly by September.
Ms MacLean said a variety of models may work in tandem next year. Some vendors may continue to provide the meals alongside the non-profits.
Rachel Collier, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eastern Graphic