Bring Food Home; Bring Food to Schools!

The theme of November’s Bring Food Home conference in Windsor, Ontario was “Building Bridges Together,” and this permeated the whole conference. One specific bridge being built more and more across Ontario is the bridge between healthy, local food in school cafeterias and educational programs. We at have a strong attachment to this cause, as seen in our Farm to School Challenge where we asked Ontario schools to purchase more local food. So what did we learn about this narrowing gap between local food and schools? There are many leaders across Ontario doing creative, diverse, and inspirational things to get more local food–and food education–into our schools.

Currently celebrating its third year, our Farm to School Challenge was initiated in partnership with Foodshare and Sustain Ontario. Meredith Hayes from Foodshare spoke more about this program, highlighting Foodshare’s Field to Table Schools initiative aimed at restoring food education in schools with hands-on activities, workshops, and growing projects. One of the most successful parts of this project is their Harvest of the Month program, where each month Foodshare picks a seasonal fruit/vegetable and shares quick facts, local farm profiles, recipes, and potential educational ideas that can be used in student nutrition programs. As a result, Foodshare has found that Harvest of the Month has led to increased purchases of that particular local fruit/vegetable not only in the specific month, but all season long! Just look at Food for Kids Peterborough and County: from November 2012 to February 2013, their Carrots for Kidsprogram served 1160lbs. of local carrots sourced from Kennedy Farms in Omemee.

One interesting program in Hamilton called Tastebuds is a student nutrition collaborative which serves over 23,000 children and over 100 schools in the Hamilton area fresh, healthy food, every day. Tastebuds also runs (or should we say pedals) a local harvest program called3Acres where local food and educational workshops are delivered to school nutrition programs by The Hammer Active Alternative Transportation Co-op Cyclists. From kohlrabi to apples, this program is teaching children not only about food miles, but also about how healthier choices can impact their bodies and community.

Dana Lahey and Caitlin Colson from Meal Exchange presented some amazing success stories and key lessons they’ve learned in the process of creating more secure, sustainable, local food systems on university campuses and in communities. Meal Exchange highlighted leading examples of what's possible for food on campus, from Mount Allison University on the east coast increasing local food vendors on campus with Aramark, to Diversity Food Services at the University of Winnipeg growing both their business and the business of regional food production. They imparted some important lessons on their audience for increasing local food procurement in their regions:

- Always start with a champion–they can create a vision for the whole project.
- Local food procurement is about the journey: when certain individuals step up with a vision, change happens.
- The value of networks: once you have a network, you have a unified voice to coordinate the demand and vision.
- Remove barriers: connect universities (and communities) to each other, and spark interest in grass roots action.

What’s the Ontario’s Ministry of Agriculture and Food (OMAF) doing to help bridge this gap? Enter Fresh From the Farm: Healthy Fundraising for Ontario Schools, a pilot project from Eat Right Ontario (in partnership with OMAF, Dieticians of Canada, OFVGA, and the Ministry of Education). Launched September 2013, this program offers an innovative approach to fundraising for schools by enabling students and teachers to sell fresh Ontario fruit and vegetables to their community. Children are no longer going around selling your average high-sugar imported chocolate bar, but instead they sell fresh Ontario apples, onions, carrots and more! The benefits are numerous, including more healthy food choices, opportunities for agricultural and food education, support for Ontario’s farmers, and profit for the participating schools. The results of the pilot? Seventy schools sold 115,000 pounds of Ontario fruit and vegetables, with $128,000 raised by Ontario schools: truly a win-win situation.

The Bring Food Home conference not only highlights the bridges being built between schools and local, healthy, sustainable food systems, but was also an opportunity to bridge gaps between people throughout Ontario’s food system. From farmers to activists, we can truly see more connections and more action being made to bring Ontario food to the whole Province.

-Megan Hunter
Communication and Program Manager