PEI

Centralized kitchen being tested for hot lunches at several Charlottetown schools

Some Charlottetown elementary school students are being given a different kind of hot lunch option — food prepared from scratch by chef Pierre El Hajjar, who's been cooking for students at École François-Buote for several years now.

Public Schools Branch also exploring a 'pay what you can' model

Chef Pierre El Hajjar prepares healthy food from scratch for students daily at École François-Buote, and says as long as it tastes good, kids will try it. (Jessica Doria-Brown/CBC )

Some Charlottetown elementary school students are being given a different kind of hot lunch option — food prepared from scratch by chef Pierre El Hajjar, who's been cooking for students at École François-Buote for several years now.

The project is a collaboration between the Public Schools Branch and the Carrefour de l'Isle-Saint-Jean, the French community centre and non-profit organization attached to École François-Buote.

Meals are prepared by El Hajjar and his team, packaged and transported to the schools for students who've ordered hot meals on that day.

The idea is to make better use of existing infrastructure and connect schools with established healthy hot lunch programs with those that don't have the means to produce meals on-site themselves.

Centralized kitchen

So far this week, students at St. Jean Elementary have enjoyed a lunch of bulgar, chickpeas, chicken and vegetables and tortellini with sweet potato, spinach and kale.

Students at Prince Street Elementary will get to sample other dishes next week.

Sweet potatoes, spinach and kale are on the menu this week as part of a Public Schools Branch project to explore preparing food at École François-Buote. (Jessica Doria-Brown/CBC )

Morgan Palmer, co-ordinator of the school food environment project with the PSB, said the two week trial is about gathering data to set the groundwork for future hot lunch initiatives.

"We are looking at the use of a centralized kitchen in school meals, how delivery looks, how we make sure food stays safe and of high quality," Palmer said.

Building healthy habits 

For El Hajjar, it's about building healthy habits that last a lifetime.

"The kids see what we do, smell what we do, and eat what we do," El Hajjar said.

"When you do something for a long period of time, it eventually becomes a habit, this is why for students, when they graduate, they'll continue making wise food choices."

Deb O'Hanley, assistant director and communications officer at Carrefour de l'Isle-Saint-Jean, said having a chef in-house is an asset to their school and community.

Deb O’Hanley, left, assistant director with Carrefour de l’Isle-Saint-Jean, and Morgan Palmer, with the school food environment project, worked together on the pilot project. (Jessica Doria-Brown/CBC )

"Our chef is very passionate, he gives students the good taste for good food.... He loves to give them the opportunity to try new things too," O'Hanley said.

She said the organization was approached by the PSB as a model of healthy living, and is pleased to take part in the project.

"We are proud of our chef and how well he does," O'Hanley said.

"If we could share practices and how well we're doing and how we could do more on the Island, then we are very happy about it."​

Options being explored

Palmer said a "pay what you can" lunch program is also being explored as a possibility.

That option would be a cost-shared program where a price per meal is suggested, families pay what they are able to, and the rest is made up of provincial government funding, community donations, and potentially private sponsorship, Palmer said.

At the end of the two week trial, a parent survey will be used to gauge interest and get feedback.

The information gathered will be put toward a pilot project set to launch at nine Island schools in the fall of 2019. The PSB says this will include chefs and cooks preparing fresh, healthy food in centralized kitchens, which will then be delivered to satellite schools daily.

Approximately $8,000 was spent on the two week project, including planning, testing, lunch subsidies and chef contracts, the PSB said. Officials said a total of $100,000 will be put towards the school food environment project this year.

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About the Author

Jessica Doria-Brown

Videojournalist

Jessica Doria-Brown is a videojournalist with CBC in P.E.I. Originally from Toronto, Jessica has worked for CBC in Newfoundland & Labrador, New Brunswick, and Ontario.

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