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Sharing the school meal potluck

Before I knew what was happening, an information-sharing meeting of 50 people that I was moderating at FoodShare, Say Yes! to Good Healthy Food in Schools,on November 28 turned into an info potluck – the best thing to happen to my understanding of school meals in a long time and an example of what a real information-sharing meeting can do.

The meeting started with me holding forth on what I thought were three outstanding features of the developing campaign for universal school meals across Canada.

First is the “Culture of Yes” that defines the movement’s attitude. We know we’re going to win this, and that this is not another lost cause – that’s partly what’s behind our feeling, for sure. But there’s a lot more than a Kiss My Yes attitude. We know that staying positive, sticking-to-it, pitching-in, rolling up our sleeves while we do the best we can with limited budgets helps more and more people imagine what we could do with proper budgets, and starts to teach governments to get over their “Culture of No” whenever it comes to new initiatives.

Second, I argued, school meals solve many problems that governments and society have to solve soon. As problem solving goes, school meals offer one-stop shopping. The combination of school meals, school gardens and expanded food-related curriculum addresses a wide range of challenges, from childhood obesity to childhood hunger to high costs for waste disposal to inattentiveness of students at school due to growling stomachs and “sugar blues,” to lifelong learning about healthy lifestyles. Our “Culture of Yes” comes from confidence that we’re on to something that benefits everyone.

Third, I argued, the cost of school meal programs needs to be shared more fairly. We need to get away from today’s situation, when 65 per cent of costs have to be picked up by people who donate resources or time. We need to get closer to what Toronto’s Board of Health recently proposed – a scenario where cities, provinces, the federal government, businesses, students and parents, as well as local communities, each contribute 20 percent.

Debbie Field, Executive Director of FoodShare was first to speak, and lost no time disagreeing with me and emphasizing the importance of children and parents contributing their full 20 percent. That’s how we guarantee quality food and service, because the students and parents need to be treated like customers, Field said. School meals are not going to be done to kids, she said. Students are the subject of the campaign and they will participate in school meal funding and organizing.

That’s a new way of thinking about school meals that’s missing in other countries, where students are treated as if they’re lucky to get anything. This is going to be a true partnership of individuals, communities and governments, Field said.

Well, the first speaker took us from three to four points, I thought to myself, and then threw away my script. Let’s head for a list of a dozen ideas from this meeting about what makes school meals and this developing school meals campaign special, I suggested, and I felt a readiness for the challenge coming from the audience.

That’s when the potluck got started. The creativity of what follows confirms the value of the enriching creativity that will become standard as we develop a participatory and people-up, not a bureaucratic and top-down, model of school meals.

Did I say meals?

Karen Ingham, coordinator of the Gledhill Public School nutrition program, made another point. Student enjoyment and need for a good breakfast is overpowering, but the program is only half about meals, she said. We’re scratching our heads. The other half, she says, is the way meals contribute to community – between teacher, volunteers and students, between community volunteers and students, and so on.

We need to savour both halves of the school meal equation. Food has always fulfilled a function of bringing people together, not just feeding them. School meals are part of that tradition. Because a comprehensive program at school integrates gardening and curriculum with meals, the lesson of Karen’s experience is that it’s time to start referring to school food programs. Food tells the whole story, not just the half of it. That took us to point 5 of 12 points.

Next, it came to the turn of panelist Mena Paternostro, coordinator of Student Nutrition Programs for the Toronto Board of Education. She talked about how schools with meal and food programs experienced major improvements in attendance and grades. This is a clear way to improve the educational experience, along the lines of that ancient saying – a sound mind in a sound body. We all agreed on point 6: to stress the educational pay-off of school meals and the importance of solid research to confirm the full value of investing in school food programs.

Mena added a 7th point, which came from her experience joining the Toronto Food Policy Council, a story that gave her a chance to take a dig at me. I managed the TFPC when Mena was on it, and she reminded us all that she came to a meeting and said she wanted to join. When I told her there was a procedure for joining, she informed me that she would be joining. Point 7 is we have to take part in the organizations that are working on this project. We belong in these organizations.

Point 8 came from Jonah Shein, the MPP for the neighbourhood of the FoodShare headquarters. If we want to talk in a way that elected officials will get the message, we need to use the language of economics when appropriate, he says. School meal and food programs save governments money. They are not only an investment in educational improvement and community development. They can help prevent diseases, such as diabetes, which costs over $15 billion a year. School food programs pay off; we need to put the information together to show that almost any school’s program pays for itself with savings from disease prevention. There may be no such thing as a free lunch, economist Amory Lovins used to say, but this is a lunch that we get paid to eat.

Point 9 came from the small apples at the centre of each table in the meeting. FoodShare buys these undersized apples that supermarkets wouldn’t accept from the Norfolk Fruit Growers Association. Perfect for school programs, right-sized for kids, rather than disposing of these apples in landfill along with the estimated $27 billion worth of food that Canadians throw out every year. In short, we have the resources at hand in our wealthy society to support food programs in school and we have skilled food producers and generous citizens who can make it happen. In that vein, one of the workshop groups brought up the possibility of inviting local chefs to the school to excite students about the possibilities of learning how to cook along with the best of them.

A tenth point came from the first of five tables of workshops that took place at the meeting. Teachers should learn about food when they’re doing their teacher training, so awareness of the powerful and positive role of food become second-nature in the educational system, just as it needs to become second nature in the healthcare system. That’s a reminder of FoodShare’s Field to Table Schools food literacy programs, and an old FoodShare concept – food work begins by respecting what food does and is.

Point 11 came out of another workshop. School food programs are part of reinventing schools as community hubs. They’re not just places that teach traditional educational courses to youth. They’re centres for many activities, including gardening, the main season for which is summer, when classes are cancelled. Schools are a great asset of society, and school food programs are one way to manifest that.

And because good food ideas come cheaper by the dozen, the meeting ended with a 12th point from another workshop. School meals don’t just benefit schools or students and should not be seen as programs of interest to parents of school-age children. Just like Medicare benefits everyone, not just people who have an expensive illness, school food programs benefit everyone – food producers who supply the meals, employers who can hire people who know food, doctors who can treat patients who know how to look after themselves, neighbourhoods that know how to create warm, safe and inclusive communities.

A popular book of the last few years focuses on the wisdom of crowds. The wisdom of one small crowd came up with a dozen good reasons to rethink the way we promote school food programs. If we get enough crowds together, we should be able to get that number up to 101. Who’s next?

(Dr. Wayne Roberts is a member of the FoodShare Board, and author of The No Nonsense Guide to World Food.)

Countdown on School Food

1. School food is an opportunity for Canadians to share in a new “Culture of Yes.”
2. School food solves many tough problems, offering experiences and lessons that address gnawing problems, from obesity to hunger to school performance.
3. The costs of school meal programs need to be shared more fairly and financed with solid contributions from all levels of government.
4. Students will be active partners in school food programs. They are subjects of, not subjected to, school meals.
5. “School meals” are half about meals and half about building relationships, which is why they need to be renamed as “school food.”
6. School food programs improve student attendance, enjoyment and performance. We have lots of evidence and we intend to prove that they money spent is an investment, not an expense.
7. School meals will come from citizen participaction. We need a ‘Just Join In’ attitude.
8. We will show the politicians that school food programs are a safe and sure investment in future health and skills.
9. Canada has more than ample resources for school meal programs and enjoys citizens keen to offering generous helpings.
10. Food’s many powerful and positive contributions need to become second nature in our school and healthcare systems.
11. School food programs can help schools reinvent themselves as community hubs.
12. School food programs benefit everyone and everything, including a more sustainable environment.

Help us come up with 101 reasons why no one should ever take no for an answer when it comes to all that food can do for Canada’s schools.

Teaser photo credit: Food Tank

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