Feeding Students’ Bodies and Minds at École élémentaire publique Mauril-Bélanger

In 2016, school life for Mauril-Bélanger’s 200 elementary students began to change with the arrival of their new principal. When Caroline Johnston took over the helm, she brought with her ambitions to provide nourishment for the students’ minds and bodies. At the heart of her plan, was an increase in the connection between the school and the local community introducing a broader approach to child development.

Located in the heart of Vanier, Mauril-Bélanger is a small French public school attended by children from neighbourhoods with many challenges. However, when Caroline looks at the school, the students, and the surrounding neighbourhood, instead of seeing challenges, she sees opportunities to create experiences that have lasting impact on the lives of her students. The median income of families at the school is $22 000/year, which means that many families are making difficult choices around food. Caroline adamantly believes that kids cannot learn if they do not have enough to eat. She also believes that schools can and should play a role in providing nutritious food to those in need.

Since many of the children do not have access to fresh fruits and vegetables, Caroline started providing a fruit bowl in every class. She then focused on lunch. Once a week, a group of seniors from the community makes a delicious and nutritious soup for the entire school. Extra soup is then given to local food banks. Eating good food together builds community, says Caroline. She hopes next to change the school breakfast program from a grab and go model to a sit-down model where the children can interact with one another while they eat. Already, she has helped the breakfast program coordinator introduce fresh milk and eggs into the menu and in the coming year she hopes to expand the variety of healthy food choices.

Also in 2016, Elyse Robertson started working at Mauril-Bélanger School as a Community Coordinator. Elyse is a teacher with a community organizing background, a history of working with the local neighbourhood and a passion for school food issues. Part of a pilot project, her mandate is to bring the community into the school and the school to the community, creating a circle where the curriculum is linked to the family which is linked to the community and then linked back to the school.

Mauril-Bélanger has many resources. A full, good-sized kitchen (a rare commodity in elementary schools in Ottawa) and twelve outdoor garden boxes. The students plant the gardens in the spring and during the summer at-risk youth, who are part of the summer program, take care of the plants and harvest some of the produce. A group of parents are presently planning a new garden that will be built in the Spring of 2018.

The school is also surrounded by engaged small business owners who Elyse wants to further connect with. Feeling connected to their local community, say Elyse and Caroline, will give the kids more support outside the school when they need it. Elyse has a dream of creating a social entrepreneur program at the school where students grow microgreens that they then sell to local business owners to raise money and awareness for school programs.

Another way the students at Mauril-Bélanger connect with their community is through volunteering. Even though the need at the school is high, Caroline and Elyse believe that it is important for the students to give back to their community. Grades 5 and 6 regularly visit the local food bank and have made soup to share with the patrons.

Another great resource available at Mauril-Bélanger is the diversity of the greater school community. There are over 24 different cultural origins represented in the school with very diverse and healthy culinary traditions. The yearly multicultural potluck dinner is a highlight of the school year with a feast of food from around the world, prepared by the families of the school. Caroline and Elyse wonder what is preventing students from bringing healthy, hot lunches from home that represent their family cultural traditions. They are considering providing thermoses to students and also thinking about possible ways to heat hot meals within the school. They want to change how families feel about food so that kids are not sent to school with unhealthy lunches. Elyse and Caroline wish there was better access in Ottawa for affordable, healthy catered lunches. They wonder, would parents who are paying weekly for pizza lunch instead put their money towards more healthy food? They are encouraged by the recent Fresh from the Farm fundraiser which provided Ontario vegetables for sale to raise money for school programs. The fundraiser did very well at their school which shows a desire for more access to affordable, fresh and healthy food.

Caroline and Elyse feel like they are just getting started. They are looking for more ways to encourage food literacy and provide opportunities to teach cooking skills to students and their families. Mauril-Bélanger is a school to watch as they move forward with their plans. The coordinated enthusiasm and passion of the school staff to bring good school food programs to the school along with the local landscape of opportunities just waiting to happen is bound to lead to innovative and inspiring projects.

Story: Allegra Newman

Photos: Elyse Robertson