Posted on Feb 8, 2018

Healthy Food, Healthy Students

As I write this column, Canadian winter Olympians, including many from Alberta and a few with roots in Strathcona County, are in South Korea preparing to compete. Their success in their chosen sport is due to their skills, determination, training, support from coaches, family and friends, and the investment made by all levels of government to ensure that the athletes have the facilities to train in. So, as we cheer for them, let’s also thank both the private and public funds that have helped made their success possible. We have great facilities in Sherwood Park and the surrounding area, which are used extensively to host tournaments. I hope to see many more athletes, including Special Olympians from the County, competing over the next few years.

As Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Education, I have been travelling throughout Alberta visiting school nutrition programs—each program as unique as the schools and communities in which they are located. Hungry students cannot concentrate on learning. The program aims not just to feed students but also to teach and model nutrition best practices to the school community. It is a universal program, which means that every child in the school can access the food if they wish to do so. After a successful pilot in 2016-2017, the government decided to expand the program to include all 62 school authorities for the 2017-2018 school year. Each school board—Catholic, public and francophone—was given funds to support the delivery of a nutrition program tailored to their school board and school communities. Some schools already had breakfast or lunch programs supported by corporate or parent council funds, and the funding from government has been used to supplement these existing programs by making them universal. The government investment in school nutrition programs, in partnership with school boards and communities, is making a difference in the health and learning outcomes of children throughout Alberta.

One of the features of the nutrition program that I have witnessed in all the schools I have visited is the freedom given to each student to choose what he or she would like to eat, while still being encouraged to try new foods. Students are encouraged not to waste food and only take what they can eat. Eating also becomes a social activity with students eating together, often with their teachers. Students are also actively involved in helping to distribute the food, collect leftovers, and participate in the clean-up. Classroom learning reinforces good nutrition choices but does not stigmatize students or parents.

Some programs use high school culinary classes to make the food, others use parent volunteers or contract out to a local caterer. Local grocery stores, such as Freson Brothers, have gone out of their way to support nutrition programs in their community, stocking special foods, introducing the community to new fruits, and discounting the ingredients for the nutrition program. Some schools are starting to grow their own lettuce, while others have established partnerships with local greenhouses.

School parent councils at some of the sites have closely integrated the nutrition program into their own activities; learning new recipes, changing their hot lunch programs or making different fundraising decisions. The benefit of this small investment by the province is much larger than the initial financial outlay. Not only is it providing healthy breakfasts, lunches and snacks in schools, but it is also nurturing community partnerships, encouraging respect for cultural diversity, promoting the idea of seed-to-table, and raising awareness about the environmental impact of the food choices we make.

The outcomes of the School Nutrition project also work toward creating a greater awareness of food security in our communities, and the challenges faced by many to put healthy food on their tables. Strathcona County Family and Community Services (FCS), through the Parent Link Centre, is a community partner with WECAN Food Basket Society. Every month, WECAN members receive three cuts of fresh meat, three kinds of fresh fruit and three varieties of fresh vegetables for a flat rate of $25. A year’s membership costs $5. This year, WECAN is celebrating their 25th anniversary. They continue to connect individuals and families on limited or fixed incomes, who are struggling come month-end, with enough healthy food to make it to the end of the month. For more information on WECAN, visit www.wecanfood.com, contact FCS at 780-464-4044 or stop by my office to pick up a brochure.

Salisbury Greenhouses, under the leadership of Rob Sproule, has worked with many of our local schools to develop vegetable gardens and teach students about growing their own foods. The program has been a success, and is expanding to more schools in partnership with the County's Urban Agriculture Strategy. Thank you to Salisbury Greenhouse for your commitment to healthy eating and education for our students. Also as part of the County's Urban Agriculture Strategy, the Strathcona County Community Garden Program provides opportunities for developing community gardens in many of our neighbourhoods. To find out more, visit https://www.strathcona.ca/community-families/community-programs/community-gardens/.

With the snow accumulation of the last few weeks, the Birkie this weekend should provide cross-country skiers of all ages and abilities with a great ski. See you on the trails!