Peterborough County-City Health Unit Helps Community Get a Healthy Start

Located in the heart of farmland, the Peterborough city and county schools are in a prime position to increase their consumption of local food and they’re doing so in ways that involve the whole community. 

Elementary and high school students in Peterborough have benefited from a school breakfast program for years, but with the new involvement of the Greenbelt Fund the program is growing to focus on local produce.

Breakfast programs are funded through community donations and sponsorships, along with funding from the Ontario Ministry of Children and Youth Services. Food for Kids is a non-profit community partnership that supports student nutrition programs locally, making it possible for all participating schools to serve a daily healthy breakfast or snack to each student.

“Kids arrive hungry at school for a lot of reasons,” says Luisa Magalhaes, a Public Health Nutritionist with the Peterborough County-City Health Unit (PCCHU). The breakfast program is universal, giving all students access to healthy meals and snacks for free, regardless of family income. This helps remove any stigma from participating in the breakfast program, an important factor in the program’s success.  

The benefits of a healthy breakfast are vast. “There’s a lot of evidence to show that children who attend school while nourished and have eaten a breakfast, do better in school,” says Magalhaes. “They are more alert and likely to participate in class, have better test scores, and are more likely to graduate. Schools with programs report better attendance and less disciplinary interventions in the classroom and in the school yard.”

The Just Food School Box is a new community initiative in partnership with the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), Food For Kids and PCCHU. Depending on the size of the student body population, schools receive boxes of produce between 40 – 80 pounds, with the food incorporated into morning meals and snacks.

The support of the Greenbelt has helped increase the amount of local food found in the breakfast program through funding towards food procurement time, food packing, and delivery costs of farmers and delivery to schools.

Getting the food distributed to students is no easy task. Volunteer participation is imperative to the success of the program. Last year alone, over 1,000 volunteers dedicated an average of 903 hours per week to serving 2.2 million meals to 17, 434 students in 47 schools. The numbers are staggering and it’s not just schools reaping the benefits.

Local farmers are paid market value for their produce upon delivery to the YWCA, where the fruits and vegetables are packaged into boxes and distributed to participating schools. This new demand for local produce is helping stimulate the Peterborough farming community. It’s a win-win for all those involved, with the PCCHU having the added value of knowing the food they’re distributing is high in nutrients thanks to its quick turnaround time from farm to classroom.

In addition to the Just Food School Boxes, the PCCHU are adding an educational element to their local food initiative with the Farm To School project. Working with Farms At Work, the PCCHU enlisted local farmers to talk to students about farming to increase student awareness of local food and how food is grown.

Not only is the push to local food in schools having an immediate positive effect on students and teachers, but it’s also preparing kids for healthier life choices. “We know that what kids eat in childhood they’re more likely to eat as adults, so we’re establishing life-long eating habits,” says Magalhaes.