At Etobicoke's Thistletown Collegiate, students learn about healthy eating by growing and cooking their own food
Last period these teenagers were in biology and drama classes. Now they are making béchamel for a rosé sauce.
Grade 11 Thistletown Collegiate students Adnan and Masood work together, Masood stirring the butter and flour, Adnan slowly adding milk to the pot.
Chef and teacher Keith Hoare, in between supervising a group of students dicing vegetables for caponata (an Italian eggplant dish similar to ratatouille) and another group searing meatballs, peeks over the boys' shoulders at the béchamel.
What's happening in this classroom is a small victory against the modern epidemic of childhood obesity, which was highlighted in Wednesday's report from the World Health Organization. In 1975, less than 1 per cent of children were obese. According to the new report, obesity rates in 2016 were closer to 6 per cent in girls and 8 per cent in boys. And with obesity comes increased risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
There are a lot of reasons to love this program. The promotion of life and work skills, a teacher who goes above and beyond to make a positive change ( Hoare won $10,000 on Chopped Canada and used it to fund a class trip), the opportunities to teach math and science through an integrated curriculum. A revenue-neutral program where the food costs are recouped through sales. And a garden, tended by students, that produces 3,000 pounds of produce a year, either used in class, sold at a farmers' market or donated to a food bank.
But the first and most immediately noticeable benefit of Hoare's class is the health of his students, who learn how to feed themselves. And this approach is front and centre to fighting obesity.
The most frequent legislative proposals that aim to do this – limits on junk food advertisements aimed at children and taxes on sugar or soda – are consistently blocked by both a libertarian objection to government intervention and the highly financed lobbying wings of the advertising and sugar industries.
While these two approaches seek to forbid negative behaviour, teaching kids about food helps them make healthier eating choices. If sugar taxes and advertising bans are the stick, then the carrot is teaching children to cook.
Back in the classroom, Hoare says of the béchamel, "It's still too thick." Masood has made sauce for mac and cheese before in the culinary arts class. So he knows what a roux is, how the paste will thicken the sauce. Without another word of instruction, the boys add another ladle of vegetable stock.
In another corner of the hotel-sized kitchen, Noor, Anita, Brinique and Melissa form an assembly to make gnocchi. They kneed the dough, roll, cut and shape it. None of them have ever made gnocchi before, or even eaten it.
The kitchen is as busy as any commercial operation, the pace furious, compared to a typical high school class. Between the school's cafeteria, teachers' lounge and a tutoring program, the students feed 100 to 200 people a day. With the ticking deadline of 11:35 a.m., when food is served in the school's cafeteria, there is no time (or tolerance) for teenage hormone-induced foolishness.
Before starting Hoare's class in Grade 10, Navdeep got by on a diet of macaroni and cheese and Hungry-Man frozen dinners, he said in an interview. Two years later, he's comfortable and confident in the kitchen. Having grown it in the school's garden, he'll add kale to a meal. After helping cook dinner at home, he makes stock from the leftover chicken carcass and turns that into soup.
"I used to eat a lot of sugar, mostly in the form of chocolate bars, ketchup and sugared sweets," says Amar, also a convert to kale, who used to regularly eat McDonald's and Burger King.
The 17-year-old, who hopes to become a police officer, says the cooking class has changed the way he eats, that he now consumes little to no sugar, snacking instead on strawberries, bananas, carrots, broccoli and sweet peppers.
The WHO recommends that no more than 5 to 10 per cent of daily calories come from the sweet stuff. For kids 18 and under, that's about six teaspoons, or 25 grams, of added sugar A day. Currently, the average nine- to 18-year-old Canadian consumes 578 mL of sugary drink every day. With sugary drinks containing 8 to 12 grams of sugar per 100 mL, that's well over the daily limit before dipping a single French fry in ketchup. Projections by the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada estimate that over the next 25 years, sugary drinks (including juice) will be responsible for a million cases of type 2 diabetes, 100,000 cases of cancer, 40,000 strokes and $50-billion in direct health-care costs.
Since Hoare's class, Sara, who is planning to study kinesiology or physical therapy, has switched from drinking soda to water.
"I never really liked vegetables," says the Grade 12 student. "Their flavour. Their texture. Chef [ Hoare] made me try vegetables."
In class, Sara learned that cooking gave her the ability to change the texture and flavour of anything she didn't like.
"Little by little I began opening myself more to those ideas. He's honestly the reason why I'm eating vegetables now."
At first, Sara wouldn't touch broccoli. Then she had to cook it in a stir-fry. Eventually, after preparing it a variety of ways, she doesn't need sweet teriyaki sauce to enjoy the taste of steamed broccoli on its own.
"Before, I wasn't informed, in terms of what's in the food that we buy at the stores. All the preservatives. When you make something, you feel more assured. Because I'm making it, I can choose how much sugar or salt I will put into things. It gives me more control over what I put into my body."
With just a few minutes left in the class, Hoare hollers directions at individual students, to sweep the floor, wipe down worktables or lug the last trays of meatballs out to the cafeteria. Students remove their hairnets, storing them for tomorrow in marked envelopes.
Just before leaving the kitchen, two students, Rosalie and Asia, take pictures of the board.
It's only been an hour and fifteen minutes but they have accomplished all of their tasks.
"In this class they can't just finish it the next day," says Hoare. "So they have to learn about time management and work ethic and teamwork."
While Hoare's class is successful, it reaches teens after their dietary habits are mostly set.
"The earlier the better," says Wynette Tavares, schools manager for FoodShare, a non-profit that designs and conducts food curriculum in about one-tenth of Toronto schools. "Between the ages of six and 12, children develop eating habits and attitudes that they may carry with them for the rest of their lives."
Education then, has the same challenge as the advertising and sugar industries. Get them young.
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