Cooking up a Good Start at Carson Grove Elementary School

In April of 2016, 110 new students, most of them Syrian refugees, started at Carson Grove, a small elementary school in the East end of Ottawa. This new influx of students bumped the school’s population from under 200 to over 300. Most of the new students were new arrivals to Canada and had high levels of food insecurity. Overnight, the breakfast program expanded from serving 80 kids a day to serving 130-150. Sandra Copeland, the breakfast coordinator, just rolled with it even though she has only 12 minutes in between when those buses arrive and the start of school to feed all 150 students.

Sandra was a chef for 25 years before running the Carson Grove breakfast program supported by ONFE (Ottawa Network for Education). She is very dedicated to her work and to the kids. She dealt with the influx of students by changing the model away from self-serve towards grab and go where the students can select pre-bagged fruits and vegetables alongside yoghurt, cheese, hard-boiled eggs, crackers, bread, bagels. Sandra says that many of the new students coming to the breakfast program were amazed to see such a variety of food. Sandra saw the need for food throughout the day and now provides a snack bin that allows the kids to help themselves when they are hungry.

By carefully watching the students in the morning, Sandra sees if a student looks particularly hungry and will let them take an extra item. She also notices those kids who are feeling shy or having trouble standing in line. One boy, Sandra says, always arrived before school began with a coke and a bag of chips to eat. When the buses were unloaded and the kids started lining up for breakfast he felt too shy to participate. Sandra saw that his need for a nutritious breakfast was not being met. She began inviting him in early so he could eat breakfast without the pressure of the other students.

Sandra arrives at the school 1.5 hours earlier to prep all the food for the day. She serves breakfast from a trolley cart in the gym with rotating student volunteers. Sandra likes to provide variety for her breakfast and regularly introduces new foods to the kids. Sandra remembers a student  who commented “I really like the bread here. We only have the white stuff at home.”

Not only is she committed to providing the students healthy breakfasts but Sandra also has fun with the program. She talks and jokes with the kids making them feel comfortable and at home. Some of the newcomers’ first English words, Sandra says, were the names of fruits and vegetables. Sandra herself has also learned some Arabic words related to food.


Story: Allegra Newman