Creating a Healthier Future for Ontario Schools

April 2010 / Skyline Reporter (Masters of Journalism Project, Ryerson University) /

In school cafeterias and classrooms across Ontario, students are filling up on fries, indulging in sugary snacks and gulping down cans of soda. Within the next couple of years, however, that could all change. At least that’s what the provincial government is hoping.

In September 2011, Ontario’s new School Food and Beverage Policy will take effect and will determine what food and beverages can and cannot be sold on school premises. It is part of Ontario’s Healthy Food for Healthy Schools Act, which was introduced in 2008. The province’s Ministry of Education has been working to curb unhealthy eating habits in schools. It already regulates what is available in school vending machines and prohibits the sale of foods containing trans fats.

According to a report released by Statistics Canada earlier this year, fitness levels of children and youth have declined dramatically over the past thirty years. Results from a national survey showed that in 1981, fourteen per cent of youth between 15 and 19 years of age were overweight or obese. Today almost a third of teens fall into that category.

The New School Food and Beverage Policy

Ontario’s new nutrition standards apply to all food and drinks that are sold on school property, including cafeterias, tuck shops, bake sales and fundraisers. They divide food and beverages into three categories:
  • “Sell Most” includes products containing high levels of essential nutrients and low amounts of fat, sugar and sodium. They must comprise at least 80% of items sold at school.
  • “Sell Least” includes products containing slightly higher amounts of fat, sugar and sodium. They must make up no more than 20 % of items sold.
  • “Not permitted for sale” includes products like chocolate, candy, deep-fried foods and energy drinks, which would not be allowed for sale, although schools would be able to designate 10 days per year when they are exempt from the guidelines.
While the policy might seem to be a positive step towards improving health and nutrition in schools, some parents wonder how effective it will actually be. Jacqui Strachan, Parent Support Coordinator at People for Education, says that some of the early chatter from parents reveals that many have doubts that such strict standards can even be enforced.

“Parents support making an effort in having children eat healthy food, but I don’t know if this is the way to go about it,” Strachan says. “I think [the policy] will have very little impact other than raising awareness about nutrition. But it won’t change school culture that much.”

Sheila Stewart, a former school council Co-chair in the Lakehead District School Board and a parent of two teenagers, is also unsure about the new policy. “On the surface it sounds good,” she says. “But then on the ground we wonder how will this actually roll out and happen. Who will be there to make sure it happens? As parents, that’s what we’ll be watching.”

Implementing the new standards is exactly what the Ministry of Education is now trying to figure out, says Kim McColl, a registered dietician from Toronto Public Health. This past February, the ministry invited representatives from school boards and local health units—McColl represented Toronto Public Health—to a meeting to discuss the guidelines and how they will be put into practice.

It will be up to the individual school boards to uphold the policy and to decide how they will monitor and assess each school’s compliance, says McColl. She adds that the ministry plans to offer support but that they are still determining what form that will take.

“A lot of [the policy’s success] will be up to the schools, the parents and the community,” McColl says. “There needs to be support from all the stakeholders. Kids need to be informed about what is happening, too.”

McColl believes that the new standards are a positive step. “Making healthy foods available when you’re teaching healthy eating is important,” she says. “We need to create a whole environment to teach [kids] to make healthy choices.”

Grassroots Nutrition in Toronto

While the province works to implement its food and beverage policy over the next couple of years, some non-profit organizations have already been hard at work improving student nutrition.

FoodShare is a Toronto-based organization that helps support over 500 Student Nutrition Programs in schools, churches and community centers across the city. It is a part of Toronto Partners for Student Nutrition, which assists parents and volunteers in running meal, breakfast and snack programs in schools.

“[The new nutrition standards] won’t affect us because our programs are already meeting those guidelines,” says Claire White, the Student Nutrition Program Manager for FoodShare.

Student involvement is a key part of their programs. At some high schools, teens prepare the food and learn how to cook and shop for groceries. “The places where those things are happening are much happier,” says White. “[They’re] the heart of the schools. People are doing amazing things there.”

Meanwhile, at Sir Sandford Fleming Academy in Lawrence Heights, a high-priority neighbourhood, students are growing an organic vegetable garden behind the school. Arnold Witt, the high school’s principal, launched the gardening program last year with help from PACT Toronto, a non-profit dedicated to providing skills-development experiences to at-risk youth.

The school is expected to produce 3000 pounds of fresh produce this year, says Witt, and the majority will be donated to the local food bank. The rest will be used in the school’s cooking program—another joint initiative between Sir Sandford Fleming and PACT—where students are taught to prepare healthy meals. Some students have been so inspired by the lessons, says Witt, that they are now pursuing culinary careers.

Witt says that these programs have become a large part of the school’s curriculum and culture. Although participation is voluntary, the majority of the school is involved, including teachers.
The students are also eating better. “Any food is good food when you can’t eat,” says Witt, pointing out that in the past, some students came to school hungry. “But we really emphasize healthy food.”

The Kitchen Crusaders host interactive workshops in Toronto schools teaching students how to shop for and cook healthy meals. Watch the slideshow to learn more about them.