Healthy school snack program expands

Fruits and vegetables served to school kidsA popular school snack program that has been in place in Northern Ontario schools for the past eight years has been expanded.

As a result of increased funding from the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long Term Care, approximately 36,000 students in 191 schools are now receiving two servings a week of fruits and vegetables through the 20-week provincial program.

Sudbury joined the program April 1, along with five communities on the James Bay coast: Attawapiskat, Kashechewan, Fort Albany, Peawanuk, and Moosonee.

Previously, the snack program, although very successful, was only available in Algoma and Porcupine districts.

The Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association (OFVGA), which handles menu planning, procurement and distribution of the produce, had been lobbying for expansion of the program for several years.

“This program lets us bring fruit and vegetables to these communities to create awareness and demand and ultimately promote healthy eating and change consumption patterns,” explains Program Manager Alison Robertson of the OFVGA. “When we started eight years ago, parents said their kids don’t eat fruits and vegetables and now they are. The teachers are seeing fresh fruits and vegetables in student lunches, which tell me patterns are changing. These kids are our future consumers.”

The OFVGA will receive approximately $1.1 million per school year for three years to procure and distribute the produce into the North.

Robertson plans the menu based on availability and centrally sources fruit and vegetable snacks, which are trucked weekly to Sault Ste. Marie from a distribution centre in southern Ontario. From there, produce is divided into school-specific orders and shipped directly to the individual schools.

For the James Bay communities, Robertson has built a partnership with the North West Company, a retail chain that serves the North, to have produce for the school program added to their regular shipments.

This saves considerable money over the traditional route, which includes shipping merchandise by truck to Cochrane, followed by train to Moosonee and then finally, distribution by air to the individual communities.

“This is not a hunger or nutrition program, it’s all about awareness and consumption,” she says.

OFVGA works to source Ontario-grown product wherever possible.

Produce served through the program includes strawberries, apples, mini-cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, pears, apple slices, cauliflower florets, broccoli florets, dried cherries, applesauce-blend cups, carrot sticks, sliced peppers, pineapple chunks, sweet snap peas, clementines, melon chunks and asparagus.

Government recognition of the challenges faced by Ontario’s northern communities in accessing fresh, affordable fruits and vegetables led to the launch of the program in 2006 as a pilot project following the release of several key reports that underlined the need for action against obesity.

Robertson says the program has helped establish OFVGA as a leader in local food procurement. It was the organization’s involvement in the snack program that helped establish the Fresh from the Farm healthy fundraising program, a pilot program being offered in several school boards this fall, for example.

“Our expertise in the procurement of local product has helped launch other programs and has been instrumental in helping our growers get more of their products into these programs,” she says.

This article was originally published in Ontario Farmer, May 13, 2014.

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