New menu, easier ordering coming for P.E.I. school food program
‘It's going to take time to change people's eating behaviours’
P.E.I.'s new healthy school food program is rolling out a new menu and a streamlined ordering system in the new year, following feedback from parents and students.
The provincial pilot program launched in the fall with a pay-what-you-can model and a goal to make healthy food accessible. About 2,500 meals per day were delivered to schools around P.E.I., cooked both in schools and by local vendors.
I grew up with hot dog day every Wednesday, and so we're certainly changing the culture in schools around eating.— Katelyn MacLean, school food program manager
The program received both positive and negative feedback on the fall menu, said Katelyn MacLean, the school food program manager with the Department of Education.
"Anywhere from, 'Thank you for this program, you've expanded the amount of food items or options that we now use at home,' to, 'These are unfamiliar, my child doesn't know what a sweet potato is or doesn't know what quinoa is,'" said MacLean.
With the new menu, the goal is still to give students healthy food, but with a few more foods that most students will recognize.
'Marathon, not a sprint'
"I think what we learned in the first few months is that we maybe need to start with things that are a little bit more familiar to most students," MacLean said.
"It's a marathon, not a sprint, and it is going to take time for children to get used to the new menu items and expect them and it be just kind of normal to have a healthy meal at school. I grew up with hot dog day every Wednesday, and so we're certainly changing the culture in schools around eating," she said.
MacLean said that at some Island schools that have the program, participation is around 40 per cent, while at others, it's only three to five per cent. She said she hopes the new menu will boost those numbers.
Heather Mullen, president of the P.E.I. Home and School Federation, also heard feedback from parents about the menu.
"Some of the feedback that we had heard was some of the meals weren't appealing to children. Some of the serving sizes maybe were too big for the younger kids are too small for some of the high school students," Mullen said.
We know that there's children across this Island that are having five lunch meals a week that they wouldn't be having otherwise.— Heather Mullen
Mullen had a chance to test all 13 of the new menu items and came away impressed.
"I must say, I think they hit it out of the park with the new menu. There were some items that I just loved," she said.
New menu items include a roast turkey dinner, a snack pack of finger foods and pizza. Each day also includes a vegetarian item.
"I think there will be certainly interest and excitement over the new menu. I am hoping it will appeal to more people," said Mullen.
Some of the feedback given by parents and guardians was also around the ordering process, said MacLean, and they've tried to work out some kinks and make it easier to order.
They now have a web page with all of the menus and ingredient lists, and parents can automatically receive a username and password to log into the ordering site.
"It's definitely a work in progress, but we're definitely in a much better place now than we were back in the fall," said MacLean.
Meeting the needs of all Island children
As for the pay-what-you-can aspect, MacLean said that they expected around 75 per cent of families to pay the full price of $5 per meal, but fewer did so.
"I can't say exactly where we're at, but we are lower than that. But we're also implementing this program at a pandemic when many island families are in positions they probably never expected themselves to be in this year," said MacLean.
Mullen emphasized the importance of the program in meeting the needs of children on P.E.I. who are experiencing food insecurity.
"What we have to remember, the most important part about the school food program is that it is a healthy, pay-what-you-can program. So we know that there's children across this Island that are having five lunch meals a week that they wouldn't be having otherwise," said Mullen.
Food literacy will also be taught
Right now the program's main component is the healthy lunch, but in the future, food literacy will also be part of it.
"This is only just the tip of the iceberg, because what's exciting also about school food is that it's not just about the delivery of lunches, but it's also about incorporating how food works into the curriculum. So healthy eating, preparation of food, even growing food," said Mullen.
The new menu will begin when school resumes after the holidays Jan. 4, and the ordering period is from Dec. 28 to Jan. 1.
MacLean said there will be a social media campaign to remind parents to order, since it's rolling out when people may be on vacation and not thinking about school.
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With files from Jessica Doria-Brown