Local schools are already doing a lot to include healthy eating, food skills and local foods in their programs both in the classroom and in the food served. An increasing number of schools have taken the initiative to develop vegetable gardens, pollinator friendly gardens, and greenhouses to complement their classroom teaching. Many of these initiatives are now supported by school board policies. Student nutrition programs are sourcing some local foods and some fundraisers are centered on local food items. Students are taking the lead in their schools to promote better eating habits and attempting to create healthier food environments. These initiatives can be built upon to ensure system-wide support for healthy school food environments.
Several organizations are working to improve access to fresh food in schools or 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 Center. Others run Student Nutrition Programs with some support from the Canadian Red Cross. The Thunder Bay District Health Unit, Roots to Harvest, Shkoday Abinojiiwak Obimiwedoon, the Multicultural Youth Centre, Our Kids Count, Evergreen a United Neighbourhood, Dilico Anishinabek Family Care, and Indian Friendship Centre provide a range of food centric programming for children and youth both in and out of school.
While there have been considerable gains made in some areas, there is still work to be done. Students spend much of their day at school. Schools are therefore the perfect place to form good habits around food. However, the present school culture around food often is in conflict with healthy eating curriculum and use of local food. For instance cafeterias rarely cook with fresh ingredients, school fundraisers often use sugary and processed foods (such as pizza day and chocolate) and there are few systemic supports for school gardens. As a result, efforts to help students learn about eating with the seasons, planning a healthy menu, cooking from scratch, and growing or preserving food are inconsistent.
The Thunder Bay and Area Food Strategy makes a number of recommendations that would go a long way in changing school food cultures, such as hiring a school garden coordinator and offering food curriculum training for teachers. Schools would also benefit from better coordination between organizations that provide programming in schools aimed at increasing access to healthy food and teaching food skills.