Monday, June 02, 2014

Guest Post: Check Out This Dreamy New Ottawa School Food Program!

Norman Johnston Alternate Program's New SNACk team with Chef Cezin of Wawatay Catering
This guest post is from Sally Collins, a local teacher and real food enthusiast who was inspired to try to make a difference in her students' education by ensuring their education included a healthy focus on healthy food. Here's how she's going to spend the $50,000 grant she received from Ontario's Ministry of Education in support of healthy eating initiatives. (Who says I never post happy stories?)

I'm a teacher at the Norman Johnston Alternate Program, a high school in Ottawa primarily serving at-risk youth. Our students are great…but their eating habits are horrid! In fact, we did a survey one day and found that only 15 out of 45 students polled had eaten breakfast, and only 10 out of 45 had brought something for lunch. We don’t have a cafeteria, so they weren’t planning to buy a meal, healthy or otherwise; they were just going to go without food. If students do bring food to school, they usually bring it in a McDonald's or a Tim Horton's bag…Ughhh. Not surprisingly, our students often complain of hunger and sign-out early because they are too hungry to concentrate on their work. When they leave the building they tend not to continue working, which means they are not completing their credits and not moving towards graduation.

So, when the Ministry of Education recently advertised grants for schools that wanted to promote healthy eating, we knew we had to apply. Eleven pages of government forms later, including evidence of student need, photos of successful past endeavours, SMART goals galore, curriculum tie-ins everywhere, and signatures of people I have never even met…our part was done. Two weeks later, the Ministry told us that we had received a grant for $50 000!!! Fifteen months from now, our school will hopefully be filled with students who are excited about growing, cooking, and eating healthy food. As I type this it seems much harder than when I was dreamily writing it up in the application…

The first step will be to get the students on board; this initiative needs to be student-led for it to carry weight with their peers. Interested students will join our “SNACk” team – the Student Nutrition Action Committee (with a non-existent “k”). To get things started, we’ll take our keeners away to a camp and offer them some intensive training. In the kitchen, Chef Rose will instruct them in cooking skills, and the rest of the time I will teach them leadership skills and nutrition. When the students get back to school, they will be encouraged to engage others in healthy eating activities. They can create activities such as free lunchtime salad bars, start up healthy eating poster campaigns, or organise a Norman Johnston Iron Chef competition—anyone up for a kale cook-off challenge?

Students will also team up with seniors from a residence across the street to plant a vegetable garden and fruit trees on our school property. The carpentry class will build raised boxes to hold the plants at a level that is comfortable for everyone to reach. The project will not only provide us with healthy food, but partnering with the residence will, in itself, be beneficial. We find that developing intergenerational relationships with seniors or small children brings out the best in all involved.

The produce we grow will be used in our food and nutrition classes and at special healthy eating events. About once a month, a different local chef will be invited to teach students to cook a healthy meal. As relationships are formed between the chefs and our school, we will be able to place students in co-op positions alongside the chefs. Students will gain valuable, hands-on experience in the restaurants and then come back to the school and teach others how to make great meals.

To make sure that students know what makes a meal healthy, we also have a dietitian, Rob Lazzinnaro, who will be partnering with us. He will be teaching students the basics of nutrition, as well as ways to make nutritious food delicious. He’ll also work with the SNACk team to plan a family day, where all students will be encouraged to bring their parents and siblings to the school. We’ll provide food and entertainment while Rob teaches parents and kids to make healthy meals together.

More learning will happen through our partnership with Algonquin College. We’ll be sending students to the college to try out culinary courses for a day or even a full credit. College culinary students will hopefully also give presentations to our students. We will even be able to hire a part-time Algonquin professor to refine our food and nutrition teachers’ culinary skills.

After all of these activities, we will still have enough money left over for a new student kitchen. Our current one is about the size of a walk-in closet; there is no chance we can get our entire SNACk team in that room. By the end of next year, my classroom will be equipped with an oven, a fridge, a dishwasher, counter-space, and cupboards!

We’ve only been able to use the grant for a few weeks so far, but things are already under way. Last week, the chef from Wawatay Catering came in and taught students to cook traditional Algonquin food, including a moose she had hunted and cleaned herself. Next month, our dietitian will give his first presentation to the students, and a carver from the Cordon Bleu cooking school will do a demonstration. Before the end of the year, we’ll celebrate it all with a home-made pizza party.

The entire project is going to be delicious!

Sally Collins has been teaching with the Ottawa Carleton District School Board since 1998, but just started teaching food and nutrition last year. This was when she developed a passion for cooking and eating real food as she worked towards her own 85lb weight loss. She is now somewhat of an evangelist, telling the unenlightened how much better life can be with healthy food. She especially loves cooking for her family, Scott, Sage (7), and Riley (5).