New Brunswick

Saint John students taste test healthier lunch options

Students from six schools around Saint John taste tested a healthy lunch menu Thursday afternoon, as part of an initiative to offer more nutritious hot lunch meals.

Menu-tasting session for elementary school students aims to improve hot lunch choices in the region

Kindergarten student Katie Daigle carefully tests the chili. (Brian Chisholm/CBC News)

Twelve students from six schools around Saint John taste-tested a healthy lunch menu Thursday afternoon, as part of an initiative to offer more nutritious choices for hot lunches.

The tasting session at the Saint John Boys and Girls Club featured some healthy alternatives to the fast food many schools still serve in their hot lunch programs.

The not-for-profit catering company, Stone Soup is leading the effort, along with Susan Brillant, a teacher from Island View School in west Saint John, and Julia Besner, a dietitian involved in the project.

Besner says schools without cafeterias are struggling to find suppliers that offer healthy, affordable meals.

"Children … spend a lot of hours of their day in school and having lunch there is an important part of their development. It's so important for schools to have that … healthy lunch option," Besner said in an interview Thursday on Information Morning Saint John.

"It's all about their future and our future for the province. We want to have a healthy population, so let's start with the children in schools."

Student focus group

Stone Soup currently operates a daily hot lunch program out of the Boys and Girls Club for over 100 children at Prince Charles School. Beaconsfield Middle School and Princess Elizabeth School also recently took them on as hot lunch caterers.

The program received a grant from NB Wellness to run a focus group before it branches out to other schools.

"To see what menu items the kids are really going for, if there are some things we should maybe scrap … and getting teachers, administrators and parents thinking about different food options that could be offered in schools for their kids," said Claire Ashton, who runs Stone Soup.

Claire Ashton runs the social enterprise, Stone Soup Catering, part of the Saint John Learning Exchange and Julia Besner is a dietitian who runs Fundy Nutrition Counselling. 9:02

"We're always making changes but we also have enough experience to have some tried and true options most of the kids would like."

The students tested soft shell chicken tacos, spaghetti with red sauce and meat balls and "some pretty traditional foods" like macaroni and cheese, but with a twist, Ashton said.

"We use all whole ingredients, whole grains for all of our bread and pasta products, all real foods, as many local foods as we can afford to buy," she said.

"There's always at least two servings of vegetables in most of the meals … A lot of of kids are picky eaters, so we try to come up with kid-friendly options, but it's also important for the meals to be complete, balanced meals so we can adjust the menus as necessary."

Chicken wrap and shepherd's pie win

Of the dishes the students tested, barbecue chicken wraps and shepherd's pie were the winners. Macaroni salad was the least favoured.

Besner says students need time to adjust to healthier food options if they have gotten used to eating fast food meals.

She says the best approach is to offer more wholesome foods that kids are already familiar with.

"It's all about exposing them to more healthy, nutritious foods in their lunches. To teach them eating habits for their future lives," Besner said.

A lot of of kids are picky eaters, so we try to come up with kid-friendly options, but it's also important for the meals to be complete, balanced meals.- Claire Ashton, Stone Soup manager

Stone Soup has already adapted parts of its menu based on student feedback.

"The kids usually go for caesar salad, or pasta salad, so we make sure we use dark, leafy greens and sweeter veggies in the pasta salad, and we don't load them with sauce," Ashton said.

"We've gone through a lot of soups, but they will eat chili — vegetarian or meat — so it's just learning through trial and error."

Stone Soup Catering is a training and hiring program by the Saint John Learning Exchange.

It brings healthy meals to clients, while at the same time, giving meaningful employment to those looking to expand their skills through the exchange.

The students taking part in Thursday's tasting session come from Forest Hills School, Island View School, St. Rose School, Barnhill Memorial School, Prince Charles School, Quispamsis Elementary, and Morna Heights.

with files from Information Morning Saint John

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