A Community Partnership Aiming to Let No Child Go Hungry
Healthy eating and academic success go hand-in-hand, and yet Canada falls behind other industrialized countries in not having a national school-based meal program. The New Westminster School District is looking to lead the way to change, by starting its Fuel Up! School Lunch Program.
In 2017, the School District passed an ambitious motion, asking staff to look into the action needed and associated costs into establishing a universally-accessible district-wide program. Their goal is to offer nutritious and affordable meals to every student, in the hopes that the program will address food security, healthy eating, and eliminate the stigma associated with meal programs.
Deanna Tan Francoeur, a Public Health Dietitian with the Fraser Health Authority, partnered with the School District in their comprehensive review, which ultimately led to the decision to completely overhaul the school lunch program. “Our recommendation was to move from the targeted program, which was open to only children-in-need in a limited number of schools, toward a universally-accessible cost shared program open to every elementary and middle school student in the district,” says Tan Francoeur.
Jennifer Black, Associate Professor in the Food, Nutrition and Health program, was brought on board to help evaluate the rollout of this new program that launched last year. “This is a significant time to pay attention to school food and to document the impacts of new programs like this one,” says Black.
“There is a growing call for a national food program in schools, and many ideas about how and what kinds of school lunches should be served. This is a real-time opportunity to capture the strengths and limitations of having school meals provided by an outside caterer with a subsidy program for families who can’t afford to pay full price. We are also learning a lot about what children actually do, talk about and eat during lunchtime and how their school experience is shaped by the lunch program.”
One component of the evaluation included a nutritional analysis of the menus offered before the program’s revamp. Tan Francoeur, who oversees UBC Dietetics students during their Year 5 community rotation, thought this was a perfect opportunity to have them involved and put their education into practice.
Janet See (BSc Food, Nutrition and Health 2013), Marina Balic and Ya Wen (PhD Neuroscience 2016) were three Dietetics students assigned to this project for their practice education year. “Using the previous edition of Canada’s Food Guide, we found that 81% of meals included all four food groups, and a vegetarian option was offered daily” says See. “However, fish was only offered once in 37 menu days, processed meats were served 30% of the time, and juice was the only source of fruit or vegetable 24% of the time. We concluded that there is still room to optimize the nutritional quality of the meals by limiting processed foods, providing whole fruit and vegetables, and high quality proteins more often.”
The partnership between Black, Fraser Health, and the School District received a $25,000 grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, which have enabled them to do a more fulsome evaluation of the program. They also received valuable contributions from Sinikka Elliott, Associate Professor in the department of Sociology, and Rachel Mazac and Amber Heckelman (MSc and PhD graduates, respectively, in Integrated Studies in Land and Food Systems, 2019).
“With the funding we spent time in schools during lunchtime to see firsthand what the lunch experience looks, smells and sounds like,” says Black. “We carefully noted how students interacted at lunch, what they paid attention to and what they thought of the new program. We also surveyed parents, who talked about the importance of affordability, convenience, and providing tasty, nutritious and safe foods that children would eat and enjoy.”
The research findings were presented to the School District in October. Ultimately, Black hopes the New Westminster experience will show how much we can learn and the importance of studying these initiatives. “The lesson we’re taking away here is why it is so important to document this process and to share lessons with other districts trying to improve the school lunch experience,” says Black. “Access to nutritious food is a necessity for academic success, but we’re still learning about the complex roles that school meals play and the importance of the adults who provide care through food.”