Schools across the region have been working hard to include food literacy skills and healthy, sustainable, culturally appropriate and local foods in their programs, both inside and outside the classroom.
There are a multitude of approaches to help ensure system-wide support for healthy school food environments. Since 2015, local school boards have invested significant resources into developing more culinary programs and classes to build student food literacy skills at the elementary and secondary levels. The number of food literacy classroom visits continues with public health and community organizations.
Another positive trend across some school boards is the growth of land-based education programs, such as Kendomang Zhagodenamnon Lodge (KZ Lodge), that support hands-on learning and cultural teachings with students and the broader community. A number of schools continue to develop vegetable gardens, pollinator gardens, and use greenhouses to complement classroom teaching and learning. Increasingly, many of these initiatives are being supported by school board policies. Student nutrition programs continue to source regional foods and some school fundraisers use regional food items as well.
The COVID-19 Pandemic had a significant impact on school food environments. School cafeterias were closed during the pandemic, resulting in limited access to food at school, as well as increased pre-packaged food options. School vegetable and pollinator gardens saw a significant reduction in use. Community organizations and volunteers were not allowed in classrooms which also limited food access and food literacy programming. With cafeterias, gardens and community organizations returning to schools, healthier and more accessible options are expected to increase.
As pandemic restrictions have eased, several organizations are reinvigorating their partnerships with schools to improve access to fresh foods and are offering programming aimed at teaching food skills like growing, cooking, and preserving. A number of schools are host sites for the Good Food Box, which is coordinated by the Northwestern Ontario Women’s Centre. Others run Student Nutrition Programs with support from the Canadian Red Cross. A range of food-centric programming for children and youth is provided by local organizations both in and out of school (e.g., before/after-school programs, daycares, alternative programs).
While there have been considerable gains made in some areas, there is still work to be done to improve school food environments. Children and youth spend most of their day at school, which makes them important places to build good food skills and knowledge. However, the school culture around food is often in conflict with healthy eating curriculum, access to culturally appropriate and sustainable food, and the use of local food. For example, cafeterias rarely cook with fresh ingredients, school fundraisers often use sugary and processed foods (e.g. pizza, hot dogs and chocolate) and there are few supports for school gardens. As a result, efforts to help students learn about growing and harvesting with the seasons, menu planning, culinary skills, and knowledge about the social and environmental implications of our food systems are inconsistent.
There are local and national opportunities to make healthy food access, food literacy and skill development a priority in schools. There is room to grow community partnerships with public health and community organizations. There is room for stronger policy support for school gardens, school food activities such as fundraising, food literacy efforts, and land-based education offerings. On a national scale, efforts are being made to build a National School Food Program to improve learning and health outcomes for all children and youth across Canada and Indigenous territories. Please visit HealthySchoolFood.ca for more information. Implementing a National School Food Program would create significant opportunities to enhance school food environments.
Organizations Working with Schools to Improve food Literacy & Access
- Roots Community Food Centre
- Thunder Bay District Health Unit
- Shkoday Abinojiiwak Obimiwedoon
- Thunder Bay Multicultural Youth Centre
- Our Kids Count
- Evergreen a United Neighbourhood
- Salvation Army
- Thunder Bay Indigenous Friendship Centre
… and others