We’re all taught the food pyramid as children, but a Colquitz middle school teacher is ensuring that students will continue to develop healthy eating habits as they enter their teens.
For the last several years, Grade 6 teacher Laura-Lyn Helton has been getting students involved in a twice-monthly hot lunch program, providing an educational avenue to learn about proper nutrition while also giving hands-on cooking experience. The program is primarily funded through farm-to-school grants and feeds about 120 students and staff at each lunch.
“It came about because I wanted to get a school garden,” said Helton, who adds she has a passion for healthy eating. “In 2013, I finished a master’s degree from Royal Roads and my topic was the partnerships to get a healthy school learning garden.”
Helton said she went to the school board and presented her plan for a permaculture food forest, but was met with doubts that students would embrace eating more vegetables, so she took it upon herself to try a more nutritious hot lunch program instead.
“I got a big salad bar and lots of pots and knives, all the things to actually create a healthy local lunch,” she said. “I live in Central Saanich, so I’m able to go to the farms out there and buy food that is local. I also supplement it with food from grocery stores.”
With a team of parent volunteers, Helton put on about 16 lunches in the first year before opening the program up to involve Grade 6 students. Now she has about 30 students helping out by cutting potatoes, slicing buns, making coleslaw and cooking salmon.
“It’s quite a buzz in there from 8:15 a.m. until the actual serving time,” said Anna Lisa Bond, middle school careers and transitions co-ordinator with the Greater Victoria School District. “It really is quite something to see in action.”
Bond said the students are learning more than simply how to cook: Helton has taken them to local greenhouses and farms to gain a better understanding of nutrition at all stages of food production.
“The students are learning about healthy living and food sustainability,” said Bond. “The hot lunch is the end result, but the educational value that’s happening all the way through it is quite remarkable.”
Helton said the students have been very receptive to the program – “proving that kids do actually eat vegetables” – and hopes it will continue to grow in the years to come.
Likewise, Bond said she’d like to see the program partner with local farmers and other groups to teach students about sustainable agriculture, as well as potential business opportunities, career paths and life skills in working with food.
“This little program, I think, would really benefit from some more partnerships and connections to community or the community wanting to be a part of it in some way.”