A delicious smell greets lunchtime visitors to W.P. Bate Community School.
In the kitchen, carts are ready to roll with their cargo of steaming pots of chili and pans of rice. Along the hallway, tables hold stacks of plates, trays of colorful sliced vegetables, tubs of bananas, and glasses of milk.
Beginning this fall, 250 students and approximately 40 staff members have been sitting down to a hot, healthy lunch each day as part of the school's participation in the Good Food for Learning Universal Curriculum-Integrated Healthy School Lunch Intervention.
Good Food for Learning is a two-year study of nutrition and the promotion of healthy eating habits and behaviors among children along with practices for school food programs. The study involves students and staff and W.P. Bate and Mayfair schools and is supported by Saskatoon Public Schools, researchers from the University of Saskatchewan, and community-based agencies.
The study, being conducted by researchers in the College of Medicine's Department of Community Health and Epidemiology and funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, examines the impact of a curriculum-integrated, healthy school lunch program. Food consumption; dietary quality; and food- and nutrition-related knowledge, attitudes, and practices are part of the effort. Researchers will measure outcomes and offer direction to public health policy and practice.
At Mayfair School, the 180 students and staff are embracing the opportunity to eat lunch together, talk about school and their families, experience new foods, and discover some favourites.
"The staff and students have loved trying new recipes and as a school have found some dishes that we collectively love," said Principal Danielle Tooley. "Spaghetti is a favorite. Bannock makes the school light up. One student said, "this is the best, it's my third plate." The SCC (school community council) noted that their kids are coming home and sharing that they enjoy the hot meals they get.
"They are excited to come down to lunch every day to find out what is on the menu. Students have said 'are you going to eat the broccoli?' to the staff and love knowing that if staff is eating it, maybe they will like it too."
During the study, a daily school lunch will be available at no cost. Meals focus on nutritious foods, including vegetables and fruits, whole grains, dairy products, plant proteins, and some meat. A six-week menu developed in consultation with the study's partners considered cultural appropriateness and the Canada's Food Guide recommendations.
"As part of the Good Food for Learning initiative our goal is to feed all students and staff a nutritious lunch meal daily," said Shelly Fedrau, W.P. Bate's community coordinator. "Staff, eating with students, role model healthy choices and foster a stronger sense of community. We are working to increase vegetable and fruit intake as well as increase sustainable, nutrient- and protein-rich pulses into the lunch menu."
Resources developed to support the initiative include lesson plans for students in kindergarten to Grade 6 that teach food safety, food preparation, nutrition, gardening, and food waste reduction. Students will also have hands-on experiences in cooking and growing food.
"Feeding hungry minds eliminates learning barriers since hungry students do not learn well," Fedrau said. "Increasing our lunch offering provides food security and stability to our students while in school. An intentional connection to nutrition education has also increased and cross-curricular connections to food, nutrition and agriculture are being enhanced."
Food insecurity is an issue for many children and access to nutrition makes a difference for all students. Families are sometimes limited in their food choices and access to a wide variety of good food, so one aspect of the effort is to educate and encourage students to broaden their food experience and an appreciation and acceptance of a variety of nutritious foods. The availability of school lunch helps families who may have limited food budgets and resources, and Fedrau said parents have expressed their appreciation.
Donations from the wider community have played an important role in the program's initial success. W.P Bate received $10,000 from the Saskatoon Paramedics Association to purchase a commercial oven, while Mayfair's purchase was supported through the Mosaic School Nutrition Challenge's $10,000 prize.
"We can bake an incredible number of muffins in 10 minutes," Tooley said. "We can also bake several pans of pasta all at once, which is allowing us to have the food ready right before we are ready to serve ensuring food safety and making sure it is hot."
The study was launched at the beginning of October, and teachers at W.P. Bate have seen a positive effect on students and learning.
"Teachers have already noted that students are more settled and ready to learn, especially right after lunch. Students who partake in the meal program have increased stamina and desire to learn," Fedrau said. "The availability of food at school helps these kids throughout the learning day. We know that food is medicine for the body and mind. Eating a hot, nutritious lunch daily feeds the body, mind, and soul. Eating together creates connection, community, and emotional well-being. Food is friendly and hospitality fosters happiness. Healthy food equals happy people."
Tooley agrees that the program is having a positive impact on students, families, and school staff.
"We are very proud of our students and community for embracing this and being so kind as we grow into this new program," she said. "With every new thing there are growing pains, but with this there have been few because we have the right people doing the work."
More information about The Good Food for Learning study is available here.