Last year, when Dr. Lynn Hansen and her colleagues at the New Brunswick Medical Society asked parents to send in pictures of their kids' school cafeteria menus, the doctors were surprised by what they saw. Among the chicken nuggets and pizza, there were healthy meals being offered that actually looked delicious.
These encouraging menus were similar in several respects, Hansen says. The dishes were simple but affordable; each day featured a different main with a vegetable or salad for under $5. Many were traditional Acadian dishes, like pâté Chinois, which is similar to shepherd's pie. And all the distinctive menus came from the same school district.
"There was clearly a trend," says Hansen, who was conducting an informal survey on how well school cafeterias were aligned with provincial guidelines on nutrition.
"And we wondered what was going on."
What these high schools and elementary schools had in common was that they had cut ties with corporate food service companies to join Le Réseau des cafétérias communautaires, a network of community cafeterias focused on local food and from-scratch cooking.
Students face a hodge-podge of options from private companies that deliver lunches to schools, from cafeterias that heat up previously frozen meals and, now, from a growing number of cafeterias that try to source food locally.
The wide disparity in programming has prompted some organizations to call for government funding to help all schools provide healthier options.
Last year, a Conference Board of Canada report recommended that provincial and territorial governments create a pan-Canadian program to fund meals for children in elementary and high schools across the country – a policy, according to the report, that could help address the fact that 10 per cent of Canadian households struggle to put food on the table regularly. The report's authors pointed out that such food insecurity can hinder performance at school and lead to more illness.
Other organizations, such as Farm to Cafeteria Canada, have stressed the importance of the role that schools can play in education around healthy food; programs that teach kids cooking skills early on can help reduce the risk of obesity and poor diet in adulthood. Statistics Canada reports that 12 per cent of Canadian school-aged kids are classified as obese.
Sweden and Japan are among the countries with national programs to provide healthy meals at minimal or no cost, and next year, Britain plans to offer free lunches to all primary school students. The U.S. allocates billions annually to its National School Lunch Program ($11.6-billion U.S. in 2012).
As the schools in New Brunswick show, it is possible to provide tasty, locally sourced, moderately priced food to entire school boards.
It all started with one teacher, Rachel Schofield, who taught physical education at École Blanche-Bourgeois, an elementary school in Cocagne, N.B. Having grown frustrated with the quality of food available to the students, she asked her principal if she could take over the school cafeteria.
When the school's contract with food service giant Chartwells expired in 2011, principal Jolyn Thériault and the school board allowed Schofield to try a one-year pilot project. With a grant of several thousand dollars from the school council, Schofield began supplementing regular orders with vegetables, fruit and meat from local farmers. Frozen hamburger patties and powdered soup mix were out, she told the cafeteria cook; whole turkeys and raw vegetables were in.
By the end of the 2011-12 school year, Blanche-Bourgeois's cafeteria had made a small profit. The price of a meal increased, from $4.25 to $4.75, but "we have food that is clearly better and healthier," Thériault says.
The board asked Schofield to take on five more schools whose food service contracts had lapsed. Today, 22 schools are part of the network, and a southeast New Brunswick farmers' co-op supplies most of the fresh food. Farmers drop off weekly orders at a central hub, which then directs the approximately $168,000 in meat, eggs, milk and produce to the schools.
Over the past decade, all provinces have adopted nutrition guidelines for food and beverage sales in schools. But some boards have reported that providing healthy meals is causing them to lose customers. In 2012, Ontario introduced cafeteria policies that banned high-fat foods such as French fries, replacing them with baked potatoes, fruit or salads. But high-school students simply walked out at lunch and spent their dollars at fast-food places nearby.
However, cooking from scratch can have an interesting Pavlovian effect, says Eugenio Bozzo, who cooks for 426 students at Moncton's École Le Sommet, a school that joined the New Brunswick network last year. As the aromas of roast chicken, lasagna and turkey soup wafted through the halls, curious kids would stick their heads in the cafeteria.
"They would say, 'Oh, that smells good!'" Bozzo says. "It made them hungry for lunch." The result was that cafeteria sales actually increased.