How chef and teacher Paul Finkelstein is changing school nutrition programs in Canada in his quest to stop childhood obesity

By Erin Phelan

The Fink effect

It’s a Wednesday morning. U2 blasts from an iPod and there is a buzz in the Screaming Avocado at Stratford Northwestern School in Stratford, Ont. The student-run café is at the heart of chef and teacher Paul Finkelstein’s culinary arts program. Today’s menu includes plates of green salad with pulled pork on a homemade ciabatta, and seafood & chicken paella. Meals cost $3 or less, healthy competition for the burgers and fries sold for $4 in the cafeteria down the hall. “If you give kids a healthy choice, many of them will take it. And we charge less because of the free labour,” says Finkelstein with a smile.

That labour comes from the 200 students who enroll in culinary arts at Northwestern each year. Since Finkelstein started teaching the program in 2001, the numbers have exploded—from four classes originally to 12 today, with two full-time chefs-turned-teachers. As one class prepares an Indian feast for a fundraiser with Toronto chef Joshna Maharaj teaching them how to make curries, another group is making chili for a local school, part of the Elementary Lunch Project Finkelstein developed to replace “hot dog” days with healthier lunches. In the classroom overlooking the school’s 280-square-metre Seeds of Change organic garden, another group of students chops cabbage for a Louisiana Slaw, part of the menu for a weekend catering job for a local tai chi club. This is a typical day: hectic, lots of pots simmering, kids having a blast.

Overseeing this operation is “Fink,” as students affectionately call him. Finkelstein, a youthful 49, has a fresh, easy rapport with the kids. You know him from Best Health: In each issue, Finkelstein creates healthy recipes using seasonal ingredients. His culinary arts program is an extension of his philosophy: “We connect kids with food. We teach them to pick ingredients at the store and prepare a meal from scratch instead of microwaving a frozen package full of salt, sugar and fat. We are fighting unhealthy eating practices, and these kids influence their friends and their family.”

A far-reaching impact

Since the Screaming Avocado opened its doors, it has attracted accolades and admirers, from politicians to celebrity chefs. Finkelstein’s students have cooked for a long list of notables—including Prince William and Princess Kate—and in interesting places, such as James Beard House (a culinary hub in New York City), and on Parliament Hill. Last year, Governor General David Johnston spent a day at the Avocado with his wife, Sharon. “Paul’s work is important,” Johnston tells Best Health. “Seeing kids have fun and learn how to prepare healthy food—those lessons should begin as early as possible.”

Chef Michael Smith, star of Food Network’s Chef Michael’s Kitchen, Chef Abroad and Chef at Home, calls Finkelstein “a true pioneer.” Smith shot a segment of one of his shows in Stratford. “Paul proves nutritional literacy belongs in schools and when it is, kids thrive,” says Smith. “I am in awe of what he has accomplished. His passion and energy have a tremendous effect on kids, and inspire others across Canada.”

Smith is championing a similar program in Souris, P.E.I., where a new K-12 school is being built that will have a culinary arts program; there are plans for a state-of-the-art kitchen and a greenhouse. Kids will adopt a farm-to-table model, learning how to plant, grow, harvest and cook their food, as well as connect with farmers and fishermen. “Paul’s Stratford model has demonstrated that this is achievable,” says Smith. The school will open in 2014.

Many of Finkelstein’s fans refer to him as “Canada’s Jamie Oliver.” Says Finkelstein, “It is an honour, considering Oliver’s commitment to ensuring families have the tools to access fresh ingredients and prepare healthy dishes.” He adds, “I hope I’m able to live up to the comparison.”

Finkelstein is certainly doing so, but in his own way. Teachers have come to the Avocado and then gone on to create similar programs at their own school: In Stouffville, Ont., culinary arts teacher Bill Edmondson modelled The Laughing Olive Bistro student-run café at Stouffville District Secondary School on the Avocado. In the town of Mitchell, 20 kilo-metres northwest of Stratford, Finkelstein’s wife, Amanda, runs the Twisted Carrot Café at Mitchell District High School. At St. Mary Secondary School in Cobourg, Ont., food and nutrition teacher Geoff Taylor’s motto is to “steal ideas from the best,” and he has implemented a number of Finkelstein’s initiatives, including providing local elementary schools with healthy lunches, and catering soup kitchen lunches. “I admire Paul,” Taylor says. “Through the power of food, his students learn character traits that are difficult to teach: work ethic, deadlines, community involvement and independence.”

Culinary exchanges play a key role in kids’ education

Finkelstein is a leader, yet also looks to learn from other parts of Canada, and beyond.

“I encourage kids to get out of their comfort zone and experience cultures through food,” he says. His Culinary Club—the so-called “after-school foodies”—has been to Japan, Italy, Cuba, New York City, Montreal and Toronto. He lines up annual culinary exchanges with other schools in Canada. An exchange with Edward Milne Community School in Sooke, B.C., which has a thriving organic garden, introduced the Stratford kids to local farmers, foraging and seaweed.

Finkelstein’s students have travelled to the Far North several times, most recently to Nunavut in April, where they ate raw arctic char, sampled walrus and made caribou bourguignon. Students raise money for the trips by working Culinary Club fundraisers and catering events, and every kid who wants to travel earns their way.

Danick Clavel, a teacher in Cape Dorset, Nunavut, says the exchange was a huge eye-opener, not just for her students but for her entire community. “Up here, people need to learn how to cook again, because it has become a fast-food community,” says Clavel.  Finkelstein brought staples they can’t easily get in the North—dried fruit, saffron, pork—and the kids cooked a community feast. The most important impact was seeing the kids get excited about cooking. “Now the Grade 7 students say they want a cooking school,” says Clavel. “People talked about healthy food for weeks. Paul understands that food is a universal language.”

Finkelstein wants to take a group of students and chefs back to Nunavut as a pilot project. “If we can prove that a community like Cape Dorset can change the way they eat, they can be the model for all of us,” he says. “I want to help them marry their traditions with new ideas for healthy cooking—teach them how to make caribou fajitas!”

Nova Scotia chef Michael Howell met Finkelstein in 2008 at Terra Madre, an annual Slow Food event in Italy, where Finkelstein spoke about his program. The two chefs already had something in common: school gardens. Howell has been teaching his students at Dr. Arthur Hines Elementary School in Somerville, N.S., how to cook food from their garden. “The look on their faces when they taste food they have grown themselves is something.”

Meeting Finkelstein was a catalyst for Howell. “What he is doing is so relevant. By the time kids reach high school, it is difficult to change eating habits. Paul gets his kids to think beyond bad habits and make healthy choices.” After seeing Finkelstein’s success, Howell applied for a grant for a healthy eating initiative at his son’s high school, where he brought in doctors to talk with Grade 10 students. “Persuading kids to eat better at a younger age is a commitment to the future.”

Finding his passion in food

Finkelstein didn’t start out with a zealot’s mission but he found his life’s passion early. The youngest of five kids, he grew up at his mother’s apron strings, and started working in restaurants as a young teen. He rose to the ranks of sous-chef and then chef, and travelled all over the world cooking. “It was never my career goal, but something I always returned to.”

School wasn’t his forte. “On my report cards, words like ‘disruptive’ came up often,” he says. Finkelstein sees himself in many of his students. Though undiagnosed, he believes he probably has ADHD. “I’m all over the place,” Fink says. “Some of the kids who come to my classroom may not do well in other subjects. Cooking provides instant gratification—food is tangible—and the Avocado is a big space with loud music where they aren’t bolted to a seat.”

Over 15 years of part-time studies, he obtained two university degrees—geography and teaching—from Queen’s University, bouncing in and out of school to travel and cook. He met Amanda at Stratford Chef School, and they lived in Kingston while he finished his teaching degree at Queen’s. In 2001, Northwestern School was looking for a culinary arts teacher and offered the position to Finkelstein. The timing was perfect. The couple moved back to Stratford (Amanda’s hometown) with their first child, Ella, 
in tow to start the next phase of their lives.

After he settled in at Northwestern, Finkelstein realized the food he wanted the students to cook was not being served in the school cafeteria. “We were meant to take care of kids, but we served horrible food full of sugar, salt and fat that would eventually kill them.” The idea for the Avocado was formed, and caught on fast after opening in 2004. There have nearly always been lineups. The food is made by kids, for kids—and it’s delicious.

“People tell their kids, ‘Don’t play with your food’, but they should play with their food,” says Finkelstein. “They should be creative, not always follow a recipe. We encourage them to push the envelope with their taste buds. The kids’ assignments are to go home and prepare meals for their families. Our challenge is to break the fast- and convenience-foods cycle, and kids are the mega-weapon in the battle.”

This is something that drew Monica Hahn-Belanger to Finkelstein. The Calgary culinary arts teacher first heard about him when watching the Food Network’s Fink, a 2007 series that shone a spotlight on the Stratford program. Though they have never met, Hahn-Belanger feels a kinship: “I aspire to do more of what Paul does. I’d love for my students to see where their food comes from; buy a whole pig and figure out what to do with it.” She got copies of the show on DVD, which she shows her students. “They realize there is another school across the country where kids cook for each other.”

Chef Christopher Jess was hosting a radio show on food in Guelph, Ont., when he discovered Finkelstein’s school program in 2006. He travelled to Stratford to see the program first-hand, spending the day cooking with Finkelstein and his students. By the end, “Fink said to me, ‘Ever thought about doing this?’ I had never thought of myself as teacher material—quite the opposite. I was that troubled kid in high school.” But by 2008 Jess had a teaching degree and a job as a culinary arts teacher at Central Wellington District High School in Fergus, Ont., where today he teaches more than 300 students who run Café LaRuche. “Today we sold out of our local roast chicken and fava beans.”

An award-winning teacher

In 2008, Finkelstein won the Ontario Premier’s Award for Teaching Excellence, and in 2011 the Prime Minister’s Awards for Teaching Excellence. Martin Ritsma, Northwestern’s principal, praises Finkelstein: “Not all kids are destined for academia,” he says. “Paul puts them to work and holds them to a high standard. They learn to work as a team, and know that if they let their end drop, it impacts everyone.”

Destinie Baker, 15, transferred to Northwestern because of Finkelstein. “Paul is an amazing teacher—he’s hands-on, but he lets you go for it, and you learn from your mistakes.” Baker, who comes from a single-parent home, was no stranger to frozen chicken strips, but now she shops with her mom and together they buy fresh food.

Jared Ritz, 23, an alumnus of Northwestern’s culinary arts program, could have gone the “wrong” way. “At the end of my first year I had a reputation of being ‘untamed.’ 
I heard about the Culinary Club going to New York City and thought I could use it to travel,” says Ritz. “I stirred pots, but I wasn’t really helping. Paul told me I had to start pulling my weight. There are life lessons that resonate, and this was one. So I focused on being better.” Ritz became a star pupil and was rewarded with trips to Japan, Italy and B.C. Through his talent, hard work—and Finkelstein’s connections—Ritz graduated from high school and earned cooking internships in Italy, New York, Montreal and Toronto. He attended The Culinary Institute of Canada in P.E.I. and has cooked under Michelin-star chefs, and co-led the clambake in P.E.I. for Prince William and Princess Kate when they visited Canada in July 2011.

“Paul gave me a vision of what my life could look like,” says Ritz. “For many people, cooking means opening a can and turning on the stove. My passion comes from bringing people together and the pleasure food brings.”

Find out more about healthy eating initiatives in schools across Canada.

This article was originally titled "The FINK effect" in the September 2012 issue of Best Health. Subscribe today to get the full Best Health experience–and never miss an issue!

Best Health Magazine, September 2012; Image credit: Joshua Loghnan/Weka International

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