The South Shore School Food Project wants to change the way students eat, one cafeteria and one school at a time.
The project, which will span the 2017 - 2018 school year, involves updating cafeteria menus and attitudes around healthy food options, as well as keeping the cafeterias financially sustainable in the process.
"We are really basing this new model of recipe building and menu building for school cafeterias on accessing fresh ingredients and whole foods," said Claire-Louise Osmond. "If we have fresh ingredients in the kitchen and whole foods and we're cooking from scratch it's going to lead to healthier food in front of the kids."
Osmond and her business partner Rosie Gair, both consultants, won a tender for the pilot project through a request for proposal process with the South Shore Regional School Board (SSRSB) and an arm's length committee - the Advisory Committee of the South Shore School Food Project.
Osmond says it all started with an initiative from Shelley Moran, the public health nutritionist for the South Shore branch of the Nova Scotia Health Authority.
Osmond and Gair will spend two months working at six schools, including SQMS, Chester Area Middle School and Chester District Elementary (together), West Northfield Elementary, Bluenose Academy, and New Ross Consolidated, rotating through each.
At each school, they'll help update the menu of the cafeteria and spend time showing the students how they can incorporate healthy eating into meals they love and also educate them on where their food comes from.
Theresa Schroder, communications coordinator for the SSRSB, says the hope is to have the project grow from this pilot year. The project's budget is $100,000, all of which was provided through grants, including one from Nova Scotia Health.
Should the project prove successful and sustainable financially, the hope is to have all of the schools in SSRSB join in and the advisory committee take over the reins entirely.
Osmond and Gair started at South Queens Middle School, which is where the menu that will be shared among the other schools, was developed. At SQMS meals with a main dish, side, and healthy treat, are $4.
"Food labs" were set up for students to try some of the new recipes before they were introduced to the student body.
For example, when it came to choosing some flavours for some all natural popsicles, several were made and taste tested by students taking part in the food lab. Orange creamsicles were the overwhelming favourite, which besides having orange juice, natural yogurt, and vanilla in them, also include pureed carrots.
The food is also locally sourced, with as much coming from local farmers markets or farms as possible. The goal is also to keep the cafeterias sustainable and functioning within their means.
Sometimes it's just little changes that are incorporated into the menu. On the day Osmond and Gair met with LighthouseNOW, it was burger and wedges day at the middle school. Students still got to eat their fan favourite meal, but this time the burgers were enriched with fresh garlic, mushrooms and onion and the wedges included some sweet potatoes with their regular ones.
Sam Murphy runs the cafeteria at the middle school and although she makes lots of food from scratch, she says she was skeptical at first about some of the new recipes.
"It's pretty much the same way it used to be, but better," said Murphy regarding some of the changes.
Even she admits she can't taste carrots in the specially made popsicles. However, Murphy says she wishes more parents would get on board with the project.
"A lot of parents, instead of encouraging healthy eating, they're bringing McDonald's to the school and I don't think that should be allowed," said Murphy.
"These kids don't know what a home cooked meal is so this is one of the only places they get it and until we can get them used to it, they're going to want the other stuff."
Osmond says the South Shore Regional School Board was ripe for this sort of opportunity. Unlike some parts of the province, the board does not have a corporation that manages its cafeterias, which means each school is responsible for the running of its own.
"In the case of this project, we are able to do the work that we're doing because there is no external body with a for-profit oversight of the kitchen," said Osmond.
Besides bringing healthy, sustainable food to schools, Osmond and Gair have another goal in mind - Munch Cards.
The cards are a subsidized 10 meal card which would cost around $40. However, Osmond and Gair want to trial a subsidy of the cards where parents or students would pay $20 and the rest would be subsidized.
The cards have been entered into the Aviva Community Fund contest, with the aim of getting the fund to pay the other $20. Osmond says this would be a test as an example of what subsidized school lunches could look like for kids across the province and inspire various levels of government to possibly take up the mantle.
"It will allow us some cash flow through the cafeteria so we can do some more local sourcing and it will really give us a chance to see if the kitchen can handle an increase in volume," she added.
As well, a big part of the food project is food security and the Munch Cards could possibly help address that.
According to Stats Canada, just over 30 per cent of children under 18 living in the Region of Queens Municipality qualify as living in low income households. That's higher than the provincial average of 22.2 per cent and the Canadian average of 17 per cent.
Murphy says no student is turned away for a meal, despite lack of funds, but many of the students are too proud to seek the help. She often knows who those students are and will offer something later. The Munch Cards would allow students to receive subsidized food, but without the stigma as no one would need to know who purchased the card, whether it's a community organization or the school itself.
"Kids who spend the day hungry or malnourished are very unlikely to access their own education and they may show up in the classroom in a way that may make it difficult for others to access their education so it's very important we feed our kids well at school so that they do well at school," said Osmond.
The Munch Cards would only be open to schools in the pilot project who have adopted the new menu. If Osmond and Gair win the Aviva contest, those participating schools would also get access to the Munch Cards, as long as they start to introduce the menu.
Finalists in the competition will be chosen October 19.