Students learn life-long food skills through Six Nations school program

The Everlasting Tree School in Six Nations of the Grand River teaches kids where their food comes from, and how to prepare it.

'It's not only just the skills, it's how good they feel about themselves'

Chandra Maracle, left, and Kaylie Campbell, right, display a bowl of local peppers that made up part of a school lunch at the Everlasting Tree School. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

For the youngest students of the Everlasting Tree School, Tuesday isn't "Tuesday," but "Pasta Day."

The school, located on Six Nations of the Grand River territory, combines a Waldorf model of education — emphasizing art, community and nature — with Mohawk language immersion and cultural teachings.

Food and mealtimes are considered part of the curriculum. Students are provided with a healthy lunch and snacks every day, using local ingredients wherever possible.

"The link between food and language and culture [is] inextricable," said Chandra Maracle, who oversees the school's nutrition program.

Food-focused lessons

A typical pasta meal may involve corn noodles instead of wheat, with a ground moose or venison sauce.

"We have a lot of dads who are hunters, so we're really fortunate," said Maracle.

As part of the school day, students take time to sit down and eat with their classmates. They learn how to perform basic meal preparation and even take field trips to pick fruits and vegetables to learn where their food comes from.

Once a week, every student brings a vegetable to throw in a pot of soup. In the process, students learn how to cook, share and take ownership of their meals.

"It's not only just the skills, it's how good they feel about themselves when they're doing these things," said Kathy Smith, who sits on the school's board of directors and has grandchildren at the school.

Smith added that she's noticed a difference in her own family. At family dinners, her grand children are ready to pull their vegetable peelers out and help with the cooking.

She said students rarely complain about eating healthy food. In fact, she's seen small children reach for fourth helpings of salad.

"It's just accepted here," she said.

Kathy Smith says it doesn't take any convincing to get students at the Everlasting Tree School to eat their vegetables. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

'A place of real nourishment'

The Everlasting Tree School is located near the former Mohawk Institute Residential School, which closed in 1970. The quality of the food there was so poor, students referred to the school as the "Mush Hole."

"Of all the abuses that have been being talked about in residential school, I feel that the one that every single child at residential school suffered was nutritional abuse and neglect," said Maracle.

Maracle said the recent history of the residential school adds to the motivation to feed students nourishing food, as well as the importance of  emphasizing the link between Indigenous food and language.

Whereas many former students of the residential school remember the food because it was so bad, Maracle said the Everlasting Tree School is "the exact opposite."

"Ten, 20, 30 years from now, I want these kids to come back. And when you ask them what do they remember … they're going to say the food," she said.

"Our kids are going to be talking about food from a place of love, and a place of real nourishment."