Growing Chefs! and Fresh Roots completed a beta test of their LunchLAB program this spring and show that a local, sustainable school food program is possible.
It’s lunch hour at Lord Roberts Elementary School. A kindergartener peers at the salad bar, his head barely higher than the bar itself. The colourful assortment of fresh, locally grown produce offers a rainbow of choices—radishes, cucumbers, purple and green cabbages, pea shoots, and leafy greens. The little boy reaches on tip toe for the salad tongs and begins to pile his plate until lettuce careens over the edges. He tops it all with kale flowers for good measure, and then heads back to his table to dig in.
It’s his fourth helping.
Under different circumstances, he might not have been so enthusiastic about vegetables, but this day is different. His peers have cooked this meal for him, and he’s even helped plant seeds in the schoolyard garden where some of the vegetables were grown. One hundred and fifty students are partaking of the noon feast. As they queue, you can see their excitement. What you can’t see is that some of these children don’t normally have a lunch to eat—and that’s by design.
Hunger and Stigma
Canada is the only G7 nation without a national school food program, and the programs that do exist target the children most in need. Though this sounds logical, it has an unintended side effect. The children who receive food support are visibly singled out from their peers.
“It’s stigmatizing,” explains Growing Chefs! Executive Director Helen Stortini. “It further perpetuates the notion of not being good enough. Of being lesser than. So often the kids don’t eat the lunches they’re given. And because they’re not eating, they’re hungry, and there are a ton of studies that show that kids can’t learn when they’re hungry.”
The question was, if providing calories alone wasn’t solving the problem, what might?
SVP alumni Investee Growing Chefs! teamed up with current Investee Fresh Roots to explore possibilities. Soon Stortini, along with Fresh Roots Executive Director Marc Schutzbank and their team, were ready to pioneer a novel idea—a universal, sustainable, and cost-effective school food program that would educate and empower children while supporting the local food system.
The program would engage youths from planting all the way through harvesting, cooking and consumption, showcasing the complete life cycle of food. Most importantly, it would treat all children as equal. No one would be singled out; everyone would participate.
They called it LunchLAB.
Proving the Hypothesis
“Our idea was that if the kids prepared the meal themselves, they’d be more engaged and have ownership in it,” explains Stortini. “And the kids eating would feel more enthusiastic about eating because they’d know the food had been grown on their school property and cooked by their peers.” It was an ambitious and disruptive idea, but would it work?
The only way to find out was to test the theory, so in May and June of 2019, Lord Roberts Elementary and Total Education High School participated in the beta test of the LunchLAB program. SVP co-funded the capital costs.
Vegetables were grown in the schools’ gardens, tended and harvested by students. These were supplemented by produce, meats and other items sourced from local farms. A subset of six older students were then given the chance to helm the kitchen alongside a chef-in-residence, where they gained experience in a valuable life skill—cooking!
After surveying the student body for input, the student cooks worked with the chef to plan and execute a meal for 150 of their peers. This monumental feat was performed twice a week by a rotating group of student cooks whose creations included curries, laksas, a taco and burrito bar, and more.
“We knew that the food had to delicious to be successful,” says Marc Schutzbank, Executive Director of Fresh Roots. And it was. “That’s why we saw kids come out with plates stacked high with local sprouts, zucchini, laksa curry, and pickled radishes—made by their friends, all for five dollars. That is a meal they go back for seconds for.”
Parents too were thrilled by the quality of food, and by the fact that they didn’t have to make lunches in the evenings. The students enthusiastically embraced the program and, according to one administrator, had never smiled so much as on LunchLAB days. Teachers loved the way the program complemented the BC curriculum.
And one little kindergartener helped himself to four plates of salad.
What Lies Ahead
In the fall of 2019, LunchLAB will launch its pilot program at Lord Roberts and Total Education. While the beta test was provided for free in order to generate enthusiasm for the program, the pilot will be fee-based. Purchasing the meal, explains Stortini, is a key component to ensuring the program is universal because it signals that the program is available to every student, not just those in need.
When families pre-order meals, they can choose how much they pay. Based on a survey of parents at Lord Roberts, the suggested amount is five dollars. Students whose families can’t pay will still receive the meal, but there will be no distinction in the lunch line. Everybody plants, harvests, cooks, and eats together.
In addition to fees, the pilot has received grants from Telus, Vancouver Coastal Health, and the Social Innovation Project (run by the Vancouver Foundation and the City of Vancouver) as well as donations from CLICK and from an anonymous family foundation.
“LunchLAB is disrupting the system,” says Stortini. “The school board is very enthusiastic about working with us. They realize the potential of working on a program with a curriculum that hits on sustainability, food literacy, and nutrition, and empowers students to eat healthy, delicious, affordable food.”
Through LunchLAB, Growing Chefs! and Fresh Roots hope to establish a proven model for school food programs that can be replicated and scaled in places where LunchLAB is a good fit. Both organizations are members of the BC chapter of the Coalition for Healthy School Food, a national coalition of over 50 organizations working with provincial and federal governments to establish a national food program. And there are signs that the government is coming around to their way of thinking.
Politicians have started to see what Schutzbank and Stortini see—the reality. “Kids who have to use their lunch money for school supplies. Who choose pop and chips, who have an eating disorder, or who simply forget their lunch at home. All of these kids are hungry—some of them are hangry—and none of them are learning,” says Schutzbank
A national school food program was a line item in the Liberal government’s most recent budget, though funding has yet to be attached. When the money arrives, Schutzbank and Stortini hope to be ready to say, “Look at LunchLAB.”
Helen, Marc, and the LunchLAB team want to extend their thanks to SVP Partners for co-funding the capital costs of the LunchLAB beta. SVP Partners are invited to come for lunch and see LunchLAB in action this fall. If you’re interested, please contact Helen Stortini at Growing Chefs! or Marc Schutzbank at Fresh Roots.
Helen and Marc are also looking for assistance with developing a branding, marketing and communications identity for LunchLAB. If you’re interested in volunteering some time or expertise, please let them know.