Elementary school used to be about reading, writing and arithmetic. But for some elementary school students in Halifax, Nova Scotia, an after-school program has put rhubarb, radishes and rutabaga at the head of the class.
Once a week, children in Grades 3, 4, and 5 have been learning to identify edible parts of plants, discovering how food travels to our plates, and determining the differences between whole and processed foods. They also work in their school gardens, and then get a chance to head into the kitchen to create their own culinary concoctions.
“There’s a magic in putting a seed into the ground and having food appear that can be shared with other people,” says Carolyn van Gurp, whose 9-year-old son Umar Timbo participates in the program, known as Good Food First.
The initiative is a project of the Ecology Action Centre, a local non-profit that works to build healthier, more sustainable communities across Nova Scotia.
“So far, the feedback from parents has been really positive,” says Georgia McNeil, who manages the program at four schools in Halifax. “There’s actually way more interest than we have capacity for.”
The program started last year as a one-year pilot funded by both federal and provincial sources. The aim of the program is to get children to think critically about the food they put into their bodies and where it comes from.
A recent report by the Conference Board of Canada showed that while Canadians have a good general understanding of food, nutrition and health, significant gaps remain. What’s to Eat: Improving food literacy in Canada makes the case that food education should be a top priority in Canadian classrooms.
“Children obviously prefer food that tastes good,” says Alison Howard, one of the lead researchers on the report. “Teaching them that nutritional foods taste good too, and teaching them good behaviours while they are young can have a positive impact on their diet choices for the rest of their lives.”
Food literacy, Howard says, is broadly defined as an individual’s food-related knowledge, attitudes, and skills. Although most Canadians are basically food literate, Howard says the research finds that people often do not put that knowledge to use.
“Factors such as price, convenience, taste and availability compete with knowledge about nutrition and health when people make food-related decisions,” she says.
That’s why the Conference Board recommends making nutritional information as accessible and easy to understand as possible and tailoring food literacy programs to high-risk populations. The report also includes a recommendation to create guiding principles for children’s advertising as it relates to nutrition.
McNeil, the youth food programmer at the Ecology Action Centre, discovered first hand just how influential product labeling can be during a session with the children on distinguishing ‘whole’ from ‘processed’ foods.
The children’s task was to determine the main ingredients in a box of PopTarts.
One young girl eagerly offered her answer:
“Blueberries!” she shouted.
She could be forgiven the error, thanks to the image of big, juicy berries on the front of the box. McNeil says most kids in the group initially relied on the design of the packaging to tell them what is in their food.
But when asked to probe a little deeper, the kids were dismayed to find that blueberries did not even make it to the top three ingredients listed in the product. In fact they ranked closer to tenth, after enriched flour, high fructose corn syrup, dextrose and sugar.
“Most of the kids didn’t know what a ‘whole food’ was when we first started talking about it,” McNeil says. “But a lot of parents have said their kids are taking much more interest in what the family eats since the program began.”
Carolyn van Gurp says the cooking part of the program is what many kids seem to enjoy most. She is a parent-volunteer with Oxford school, where her son Umar is in the fourth grade.
“They love having knives and cutting boards and doing something they see as an adult activity,” she says. Van Gurp said she was skeptical about the program at first, knowing how tired children are at the end of a school day. “Usually all they want is to play with their friends or go home and get supper, but I’ve been really impressed with how engaged they have been each week.”
One of the main takeaways she has observed from her son’s participation in the program is how much influence peers have.
“We have a garden at home and we used to talk a bit about issues of food and where it comes from,” she says. “But it wasn’t until Umar got involved with his peers that he really took an interest in gardening and cooking and it all really started to sink in.”
Now, not only is Umar involved in the school garden, he also asked for his own portion of the family garden to grow his own food, and he has taken an active interest in the Common Roots Urban Farm, located in the heart of Halifax.
“He is more interested in trying new foods now, and even initiates conversations about food,” van Gurp says. “This is a powerful learning experience that will stick with him for life.”
Five Things for Children to Learn About Food
Teaching nutrition in schools is a huge opportunity across the curriculum, says Diana Chard, a registered dietitian and wellness counselor at a Sobey’s store in Halifax. Food offers the chance to learn not only about our bodies and how to stay healthy, but also about math, biology and many other subjects. A few lessons children should learn:
- Variety – “Giving children a wider variety of food when they’re infants often leads to them being less picky eaters as they grow up.” Trying lots of different foods from different food groups is also the key to getting all the nutrients a growing body needs.
- Mindful eating – “Babies naturally know when to stop eating,” says Chard. “As we get older, we unlearn how to tell when we’re full. We have basically taught ourselves to overeat.” Teaching children mindful eating helps them self-regulate, so they recognize when they don’t need to eat anymore.
- Basic cooking skills – “A lot of people don’t have food skills to cook inexpensive things from scratch.” Knowing your way around the kitchen is, she says, the best way to help overcome obesity and is essential to being healthy. Kids should know how to identify ingredients and what to use them for.
- Eating locally – “Trying to eat as locally as possible is important so we’re not putting more pollution into the air by shipping things long distances.” Eating locally also means eating seasonally, which means getting the freshest food and the most nutrients as possible.
- Self-sufficiency – Having the knowledge to grow food ourselves helps everybody in the area. “We don’t know what’s going to happen down the line,” suggest Chard. “Not to be melodramatic, but if there’s a huge weather event or crisis and we get cut off from food supplies, we need to be able to grow our own food.”