Fuel for School

1 Jun

You may have heard of British celeb chef Jamie Oliver’s campaign to get children on both sides of the Atlantic eating healthy school meals. There were tears along the way–and not on the part of the kids.

Jamie came up against a brick wall in some North American cities, trying to convince parents and catering staff that “breakfast pizza” washed down with pop doesn’t make for focused, hard-working students. Luckily, Toronto cook Voula Halliday has had a much smoother ride serving up nutritious lunches at Dundas Elementary School.

It’s a Friday when I turn up at Voula’s kitchen–a big day for two reasons. Firstly, the Cordon Bleu-trained lunch lady and her volunteers always cook to the romantic crooning of Paolo Conte that day. “Paolo Conte Fridays get our groove going,” explains Voula, as she stirs the wholemeal bread, sweet potatoes, spinach, herbs and cheese in her deep dish comfort pie.

Fridays are also the day when the team wants to make sure every kid has had a hearty feed before going home for the weekend, so they whip up an amazing roast dinner.

The Dundas Nutrition program was started 20 years ago by parents keen to see their kids thrive at school. It proceeded in fits and starts, until Voula took on a position as the school cook a few years ago and established a very simple framework of offering set dishes on set days, which could be adapted to the seasons. Tuesday is brown-rice-bowl day; Thursday is pasta day, and so on.

And there’s always fresh salad. “The kids love raw vegetables,” says Voula. “And having that option means they’ve always got something to pick at if they’re having a funny day.”

Voula works with parent volunteers of diverse cultural backgrounds at this East-End school, some of whom don’t speak English, so the system needs to be consistent and easy to pick up. Voula gives volunteers free rein to cut and season veggies and meat as they would at home, bringing variety into the mix. The kids always like to know whose mom or dad helped make their lunch.

One hundred and thirty of the school’s 280 students eat and love the dishes Voula concocts with mainly local vegetables, organic meat and fresh fruit bought at friendly prices from partners like Rowe Farms and Foodshare. Throughout the morning, in fact, some will sneak out of class to see what’s cooking.

And this former Dundas Elementary student, Ron, whose grandchild attended the school until last year, struck a deal with Voula after smelling her roast chicken and potatoes from the schoolyard. He comes by every Friday and buys a roast dinner to take home and share with his wife.

So how does Voula get children excited about eating things like kale and squash?

Well first of all, she serves them one at a time, and if there’s something they’re not sure about, she answers their questions and offers them a teaspoon-sized portion so they can get used to new tastes and textures, before making up their minds.

“I explain to them that they need a good balance of foods on their plate to help them concentrate in class and have the energy to play in the schoolyard,” says Voula. “And sometimes it takes three or four tries till they start liking something new.”

Secondly, she often makes her healthy dishes a spin on familiar child-pleasers. Take today’s deep dish pie: It has spongy bread, melted cheese, veggie layers and an abundance of oregano, making it a lot like pizza. And these oven-baked potatoes still have their nutritious skins on, but they’re cut thin and done in olive oil, so they taste kind of like fries.

Lastly, she welcomes feedback. The older students–like Voula’s daughter, fifth-grader Maxine–take pride in letting her know if a new dish needs more garlic or a little less spice. “It gives them confidence and makes them feel like they’re a part of the whole thing,” says Voula.

Voula’s formula has been picked up by other schools recently, even as far afield as British Columbia. In fact she’s on the verge of handing over the program at Dundas Elementary, so she can consult for school caterers across the country and work on a charity cookbook with healthy recipes that can be adapted to feed a family or a whole school.

I hope you’ll enjoy Voula’s Deep Dish Savoury Comfort Pie as much as her students clearly do. Click here for the recipe.

And I’d love to hear about the lunches served at your child’s school, in the comment section below. Is nutrition taken seriously or are the kids being served nothing but junk food? What are parents and staff doing to make a difference?



6 Responses to “Fuel for School”

  1. signe June 1st, 2011 at 5:19 PM #

    Children need more Voula’s in their lives. And schools that are still serving their children high-fructose corn syrup, deep-fried, previously frozen crap are just lazy and lack vision.

    • Tracey June 1st, 2011 at 8:02 PM #

      Parents (or at least the parents that attend council meetings and make the decisions) at my kids’ school are convinced that their kids will not eat anything besides chicken fingers, macaroni and cheese (the gross kind) pizza and hamburgers. There is absolutely no interest in bringing in healthier food as parents are worried that their children will not eat it. The philosophy is that they would rather their kids eat potato chips than nothing at all, and they know their kids won’t eat a healthy snack, so potato chips it is! What the heck are they feeding them at home then, I wonder? When they heard that we HAD to switch to whole wheat crust pizza to comply with the new Ministry of Education food guidelines they had a fit!! If not for these new guidelines, there would be no movement whatsoever to introduce healthier foods. I don’t understand why people don’t care about this. My impression is that there is more understanding and openness in the downtown schools (am I wrong?) We are in Thornhill. Needless to say, my kids don’t participate in the lunch program and are fine with that!

    • Valerie Howes June 1st, 2011 at 10:23 PM #

      One thing that made it possible for Voula to do what she does was the tremendous support of the principal at Dundas Elementary, Maria Arone. Maria was even helping Voula serve the kids their lunch–something I believe she does every day. She told me she sees a difference in behaviour and focus when kids eat properly and don’t have to deal with blood sugar level swings. How much easier would it make life for students and teachers across the country if every principal made nutrition a priority?

    • Valerie Howes June 1st, 2011 at 10:25 PM #

      Very true, Signe. These kids were clearly grateful for Voula’s made-from-scratch fare. I have never seen a lunch lady receive so many hugs in such a short space of time!

  2. Cheryl Cooper June 1st, 2011 at 9:03 PM #

    Bravo, Voula! You are a true inspiration. I applaud your dedicated efforts on behalf of our precious children.

  3. Paul DeCampo June 5th, 2011 at 7:47 PM #

    Voula and the community that support this program are remarkable, but access to quality food should not be dependent upon volunteer effort. All the students in the city / province / country deserve such quality food, and the benefits to society are general, and thus should be supported by our collective taxes. While the Ontario Liberals have invested most seriously in Student Nutrition, access still varies from school to school. Will any political party put Children’s Food First in their platform for the next election? Let’s ask at the upcoming all-candidate meetings.

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