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South Shore School Food Project helps get kids eating, thinking healthy

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Remo Zaccagna

A year-long pilot project that promotes healthy eating in schools has proved to be a hit with parents, students, educators and cafeteria workers alike.

The South Shore School Food Project, which was introduced in six schools during the 2017-18 academic year, has created an environment where many students are excited to try the healthier food options in the cafeteria.

“There are certainly moments during the school day where you see kids connect in a very special way with food as a way of learning and potentially as a way of life,” project coordinator Claire-Louise Osmond said.

The genesis of the project started in the spring of 2016 when Shelley Moran, a public health nutritionist with Nova Scotia Health Authority, held discussions with local stakeholders to seek ways that schools have an equitable program to support healthier eating.

From there, NSHA provided funding to the Health Promoting Schools Partnership in the South Shore Regional Centre for Education to look into a model that would benefit students, cafeteria workers and local food producers, while also stabilizing budgets.

Osmond and business partner Rosie Gair responded to a request-for-proposals with a project that sought to improve food literacy among students, address food insecurity issues and buy locally-sourced products from famers markets and farms for the participating schools.

“Some of the cafeterias were running at a deficit, really struggling to stay above water,” Osmond said. “School cafeterias are our most significant opportunity to influence the way children eat and to teach them about where their food comes from”

The project’s budget is $100,000, which was obtained exclusively through grants.

Gair and Osmond spent two months in each of the six schools: Bluenose Academy, Chester Area Middle School, Chester District Elementary, New Ross Consolidated, South Queens Middle School and West Northfield Elementary.

They helped update the cafeteria menus to incorporate more whole foods and less processed items while keeping the options – such as tacos and baked potatoes – familiar for students. An education component where students could learn where their food comes from was also added.

In addition, food labs were established where students could try new recipes before they were introduced in the cafeteria and they could experiment with their own ideas, which included creating healthy popsicles using natural ingredients.

“It’s sort of trying to provide a practical element and meet the kids where they’re at,” Gair said. “We don’t want to alienate some kids that aren’t familiar with certain foods and whole foods and things made from scratch. We want to be able to provide something to them that always feels familiar and exciting and like something that they would want to try.”

The project has gradually gained popularity amongst students, and parents have taken notice.

Osmond said parents have become their “most significant advocacy group” and many have been volunteering their time to help integrate the project into the schools.

“Somebody called me on a Sunday evening and said ‘you’ve got my kids eating salad, what can I do for you?’” she said.

The local business community has also come on board.

The Lunenburg Farmers Market has provided $5,000 to help Bluenose Academy set up a salad bar in September.

“We think it’s a fantastic project to get local foods back into the schools (and) connect kids with that,” market manager Ashley Marlin said.

“Quite a bit of the Bluenose Academy students come and shop on Thursday mornings anyway, so it’s a nice connection.”

The project is being evaluated but it is expected to continue next year with a possibility of expansion into more schools.