Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Growing Healthy Communities: A Forum on Children, Youth and Food in Ottawa

On February 28th teachers, parents, community organizers gathered at Heritage Academy for Growing Healthy Communities, a forum on children, youth and food, hosted by COG OSO’s Growing Up Organic Program. Alissa Campbell, Growing Up Organic’s Project Manager prefaced the evening by highlighting some of GUO’s achievements in 2012. She introduced the evening’s theme, Ontario’s new School Food and Beverage Policy, by expressing hope that we have a unique opportunity today to re-engage students in their food environments, re-empower them to be part of creative solutions, and actually rethink food education in our schools.

Laurie Dojeiji, Manager of Health Promotion at the Champlain Cardiovascular Disease Prevention Network set the tone for the evening, providing attendees with background recent changes observed in school food environments across the Champlain region.  Meeting the demands of the new policy have been challenging in Ottawa and across the province, and changes in school cafeterias have been met with noticeable resistance from students. But Laurie was optimistic for the years of implementation ahead, observing that changing youth food culture takes time, and that when elementary students arrive in high school now, healthy cafeterias will be the norm. 

Kent Van Dyk, Culinary Arts teacher at Longfields Davidson Heights, followed Laurie and spoke about his experience starting the culinary arts program at LDH: “Our school system strongly emphasizes numeracy and literacy, and rightly so, but I tell my students, listen: you eat three meals a day, every day, from day one, and for the rest of your lives.” Kent’s enthusiasm for making cooking and gardening cool for youth is contagious; since beginning at LDH, he has established a sprawling organic vegetable garden and a new orchard, allowing his students a field-to-plate experience that elicits reflection on where food comes from and the impact of our food choices every day. If the treats Kent’s students provided during the break are any indication, there are more than a few budding chefs growing out of the program thanks to Kent’s mentorship. 

Finally, Cheryl Boughton, Headmistress at Elmwood private school, shared Elmwood’s inspiring story of cafeteria transformation. Disgusted with her saucy-reconstituted –chicken stir fry one day, Cheryl decide she had had enough, and so began her journey to transform the school cafeteria. Elmwood now works on a self-operated model, with its own executive chef and food service staff. In the “Elmwood Bistro” kitchen, they prepare delicious meals for the 350 girls at the school. They have connected with organic farmers, and local sustainable purveyors of fish and seafood, and most remarkably, have reduced their costs from their previous third-party catered service. Of course they still serve child favorites, Cheryl says, but the ingredients are fresh, organic, and nutritious….and vegetables are hidden everywhere! Candice Butler, Elmwood’s new chef, brought a testament to the new kitchen’s creativity and talent in her oatmeal-apricot-chocolate chip-white-bean (that’s right!) cookies that were gobbled up by everyone in attendance after Cheryl’s presentation. 

In the second half of the evening, participants had a chance for some more intimate conversations in facilitated break-out sessions covering topics from school composting programs to connecting schools with local organic farms. How difficult it was to wrap up conversations at the end of the evening! Hopefully, these conversations will indeed continue and inspire even greater transformation in Ottawa’s school food environments. 

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