Extreme makeover: School nutrition

Best Health’s resident fresh-food chef Paul Finkelstein is working hard to change the way Canada’s kids eat

Extreme makeover: School nutrition

Source: Best Health Magazine, November/December 2009

Success at the Screaming Avocado

‘I’ll have spinach with that.’ It’s not what you would expect to hear at a high school cafeteria. But at the Screaming Avocado Café at Stratford Northwestern Secondary School in Ontario, fresh and lightly sautéed tender greens are the perfect side dish for the Moroccan lamb couscous or braised rabbit’all prepared by students.

The café, student-run and financially successful, is the brainchild of chef and teacher Paul Finkelstein, and is serving as a model for educators who want to improve students’ nutrition. Finkelstein, who heads up the culinary arts program, opened ‘The Screamer,’ as it is affectionately known, in 2004, with a mission to provide healthful food and compete with the school’s regular cafe­teria. ‘It’s nice to see kids choosing healthy food on a daily basis and staying away from the fries they can get at the ‘caf’ down the hall,’ says Finkelstein, a regular contributor to Best Health.

A model for healthy eating across the school system

It’s little wonder, then, that other educators are taking notice. When Toronto District School Board Trustee Michael Coteau was searching for a prototype for introducing healthy foods to a school system monopolized by junk food, he found inspiration in the Screaming Avocado. ‘We all understand that when students eat well, they perform well,’ says Coteau of the importance of healthy food options at schools, where it’s estimated kids get one third or more of their daily food intake.

Concerned about growing child obes­ity and serious health issues such as diabetes related to poor eating habits, Coteau is leading the Nutrition Task Force, a group of dedicated principals, school trustees, administrators and community members in Toronto who are assessing nutrition’or the lack of it’at the city’s schools. Their plan is to implement one Screaming-Avocado-style cafeteria, and then ‘logically, take it to multiple sites,’ says Coteau.

The pilot project is pegged for downtown Toronto’s Central Technical School, which has a program in hospitality and tourism. ‘It has a good facility,’ says Coteau, ‘and the local trustee is committed.’ A start date has yet to be set and the funds are not yet available’it will cost about $85,000 to start up’but Coteau is encouraged the work will go ahead soon.

More schools that promote healthy eating

Teacher Bill Edmondson also took a page from Finkelstein’s story. His Screaming-Avocado-inspired Laughing Olive Bistro, which he and students run at Stouffville District Secondary School in Ontario, has been open for three years. About 50 students from grades 10 through 12 work their way through the credit-earning program (much like the Avocado) and, Edmondson reports, ‘enrolment in the program is bulging.’

There’s more. Chef and teacher Chris Jess started the Food School kitchen, which is part of the hospitality program at Centre Wellington District High School in Fergus, Ont. He also cites Finkelstein as an inspiration. An unconventional take on the standard hospitality and tourism course, Jess’s program focuses on teaching students about local and seasonal foods along with food traditions such as preserving. Jess also plans to launch an in-school bistro and an agricultural program.

And Finkelstein’s wife, Amanda, a high school teacher specializing in hospitality at Mitchell District High School in Mitchell, Ont., is gradually turning her classroom into a café where she and her students serve hot lunches that introduce fresh ingredients into the school menus.

The number of ‘edible schoolyards’ is also growing. This low-cost solution, which gets kids planting, harvesting and dining on foods from their own gardens, is a movement started by California chef and food activist Alice Waters, whom Finkelstein admires. His café has evolved to include an on-site organic garden and greenhouse.

For now, many of the food and nutrition programs inspired by Finkelstein’s café model are located in Ontario, but edible schoolyards and cafeteria menu makeovers are taking root farther afield. Edward Milne Community School in Sooke, B.C., started a garden three years ago that is part of the curriculum. At Dr. Arthur Hines School in Summerville (Hants Co.), N.S., a similar program has also become an official part of the curriculum. And at Bev Facey Community High School in Sherwood Park, Alta., the cafeteria now serves its fries baked and has added items such as salads and wraps.

How your school can join the trend

So whether you’re a parent or a teacher, how do you get started at your school? First, you need the principal’s support. Finkelstein’s principal negotiated ‘a free-market economy’ that overruled the conventional cafe­teria’s control over food service. ‘We do need our principals, our teachers, our trustees, the board, to take charge,’ Finkelstein says. Parents have to play a role, too. ‘I love the idea of students and parents getting involved in changing their schools. Without parents’ involvement, the boards of education will keep everything status quo, counting the money they make off junk food.’

How these programs are changing kids’ futures

The latest Finkelstein initiative is The Mud to Mouth Project, a plan to see each elementary school in Stratford, Ont., with its own garden plot. It’s thanks in part to the fact that Finkel­stein convinced a local farmer to donate two hectares of farmland to the project.

For some graduates of Finkelstein’s culinary arts program, the future continues to include food. Brendon Lyoness, one of his graduates and now a 21-year-old college student, managed the Seeds of Change Organic Garden of The Mud to Mouth Project on part of the donated land this past summer. He has tied his high school experience with Finkelstein to the business knowledge he’s receiving at college: With a business start-up grant and his own label, Caveman Crops, he now produces enough root crops’potatoes, beets etc.’to supply restaurants in Stratford.

‘I’ve learned the value food can bring to your life,’ says Lyoness. And it was the Screaming Avocado that steered him down this path. ‘Without the experiences that the café exposed me to, I wouldn’t have the knowledge that helped me succeed.’

This article was originally titled "Extreme Makeover: School Nutrition," in the November/December 2009 issue of Best Health. Subscribe today to get the full Best Health experience’and never miss an issue!’and make sure to check out what’s new in the latest issue of Best Health.