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School Food Program Innovation During COVID

Notes from the Coalition for Healthy School Food meeting on May 26, 2021

By Veronica Wahba, University of Toronto Scarborough Campus, Health Studies student, Feeding City

On May 26, 2021, Coalition members from across Canada came together to hear how school food programs are adapting to Covid-19 restrictions, and to discuss what they hope to be integrated into a Canada-wide School Food Program.

Participants heard from the following speakers:

Gord Androsoff, Executive Director at CHEP Good Food Inc. Saskatoon, Saskatchewan:

  • CHEP (short for ‘Child Hunger and Education Program’) is a volunteer driven non-profit charitable organization that has served its community in Saskatoon since 1989 through delivering food-related programs and services and advocating for food security.

  • CHEP’s regular programs include a community market (place-based and mobile) and senior stores that provide fresh food, support of school nutrition programs with food purchasing and delivery, a centralized kitchen that prepares bagged lunches for schools without a food program, support of community gardens, an urban agriculture internship program and educational modules (online during covid) on nutrition and cooking skills.

  • During Covid-19 CHEP’s programs adapted to the restrictions. They started a school family delivery program to deliver food boxes to students that used to receive food at school. Their meals for seniors program continued.

  • A challenge CHEP faced is the difficulty of engaging volunteers during Covid-19. Gord expressed that CHEP is hoping for the Federal government to develop National Standards regarding a National Food program, and funding to aid them in delivering their program.

Natalie Berghuis, Boîte à Lunch Regional Coordinator, The Depot Community Food Centre, Montreal, Quebec:

  • Natalie discussed Boîte à Lunch’s mission to address food security while teaching children and teens cooking skills, building their nutritional knowledge and working towards developing a long-term healthy relationship with food. Natalie highlighted Boîte à Lunch’s 10-week primary workshops that serve up to 18 participants ages 9 to 11 throughout 6 different neighbourhoods on the island of Montréal. In each workshop, participants prepare 2 recipes, at least one of which includes a featured ingredient. Participants explore, in detail, this featured ingredient (its nutritional value, how it grows, etc.) and also do an interactive activity that focuses on some other food-related topic, e.g. food marketing, composting, eating habits around the world, etc.

Children preparing a meal during Boîte à Lunch virtual workshop
  • Due to Covid-19, Boîte à Lunch had to adapt to the new restrictions. In September, they began hosting their workshops virtually via zoom. Kits have been picked up by participant families that the children use to prepare food with their parents during the zoom session. The virtual workshops have allowed the children to be involved in every aspect of preparing the meal, as opposed to the in-person sessions where the children were only involved in some of the steps of the recipe. Natalie also noted the importance of involving parents as their behaviours and habits influence their children.

  • Boîte à Lunch has faced some limitations with their new approach including the inability to reach as many participants, both because they do not have the technological means to join via Zoom and because of the additional logistical burden of preparing the kits. Indeed, the kits have individually-portioned ingredients, which takes more time to prepare. However, virtual recipe kits include 4 portions of the recipe, which feeds the entire family!

  • Regarding National Standards on food literacy, Natalie stated “it would be great to see evidence-based standards for what a food literacy program should look like and [how] it would modify what Boîte à Lunch is currently doing.” (24:30)

Karen Rodgers, Snack Program Coordinator, Holy Family Catholic Elementary, London, Ontario:

  • The snack program at Holy Family Catholic Elementary in London, Ontario serves 200 students with 2 daily snacks. As school moved online so did the program. Students receive snack bags that provide them food for weekdays, long weekends, PA days, and extended holidays. These pre-portioned and prepped snack bags allow children to independently eat a meal without relying on their parents.

  • Each snack bag includes “fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grain foods, protein foods and dairy. We try and avoid store bought pre-packaged items, opting for making items from scratch where possible” (28:12). Karen stated, “we consider the fun and psychology of food, packaging resembles restaurant takeout, includes a menu and each week has specials of new or favourite items” (28:21). These snack bags include weekly snack menus that keep in mind the children and their families’ allergies, a reminder of how to wash the food, and how to break up the food according to the appropriate storage method (refrigerated or dry), as they teach the children practical skills.

  • The Snack bags at home program is available to every child at the school, provides the children readily available healthy food that is easy to prepare, and provides the children with a sense of independence. Karen voiced the strengthened sense of community this program has created within the staff and the students, as she noted some students would virtually eat their snacks together.

Debbie Field, Coalition for Healthy School Food (National updates):

  • Debbie shared the importance of “drawing attention with pediatricians and medical officers of health and our allies in this whole space, [regarding how] children need healthy food access even more during Covid-19 and [that] school food is an essential service”

Members of the Coalition separated into breakout groups to discuss what roles different levels of government and others could take to advance a Canada-wide School Food program.

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