Norman Johnston: From Field to Table

Norman Johnston Secondary Alternate Program is the poster child for high impact school food programs. With Mark Frankish as the Foods Program teacher, Laura Cardiff as the Garden Program teacher and all round healthy food advocate teacher Sally Collins leading the charge, Norman Johnston has changed the way their students feel about coming to school.

As an alternate high school site, Norman Johnston serves students aged 16-21 for whom the traditional system has not been successful for a variety of reasons. Often students struggle with mental health, addiction, poverty, or social exclusion. Sally Collins believes that teaching about self-care, including healthy eating should be a priority. Looking around the school, Sally saw students who were not getting the nutrition they needed, which was affecting their school work.

Five years ago, Sally won a $50 000 Healthy Eating Grant for the school. With this money, she had a foodsroom built at the school providing a space with a stove, fridge and sink. The program has expanded from there. Teacher Mark Frankish, who has extensive background in the food services industry, was hired as the Foods Program teacher. Most days, students in the Foods Program make a healthy lunch for 20-35 students. Getting the students to eat homemade foods that are unfamiliar is always a challenge, but Norman Johnston teachers and staff have persevered. In fact, in 2017 the last vending machine was removed and only one student complained.  And the food is available to all students. “Everyone should be able to try new foods” says Sally Collins. Cost, she believes, should not be a barrier for students to eat healthy meals.

In 2017, Norman Johnston was the only school in Ottawa to receive a $10 000 salad bar grant from Farm to Cafeteria Canada. With this money, they purchased an industrial dishwasher to increase the amount of food prep they could do each day and expanded their outdoor growing space. The students now make and serve delicious salads using school grown greens every week and for special school events. The Foods Program at Norman Johnston is structured around a holistic Farm to Table model with the students growing and cooking much of the food themselves. Sally Collins says the meals the students make are “made from the healthiest food that the kids will eat”. That means pushing the envelope with some things while using other, more familiar ingredients. For example, using white flour wraps to wrap some of the chicken salad wraps because the teachers know that the meal is more likely to be eaten and not wasted.


As well as an extensive outdoor garden, Norman Johnston also has three inside tower gardens and are testing out a soil based garden tower that has an internal vermicomposter. Gardening teacher Laura Cardiff says the students show a lot of interest in the garden program. They learn about seed saving, plant propagation and sustainable gardening through hands-on training with Laura and most recently through workshops with Growing Up Organic. In the fall and spring, students take part in a six-week course where they focus on learning all they can about growing food outside. According to Laura, digging in the dirt contributes to students’ overall well-being. The students who are involved in the gardening program are engaged and connected and feel part of the school. In a population with high absenteeism, gardening students seldom miss a day.

During the growing season, 80% of the food used in the Foods Program is from the garden. In the winter months 70% of the food is purchased while an amazing 30% comes from the blanched and frozen produce from the fall harvest  or from the indoor gardens in Laura’s classroom. Mark’s commitment to using as much local food as possible means that part of the Fall program is preparing and freezing food for later use. When talking about the importance of the program, Sally Collins says that, “dietitians advise that the best thing you can do for teenagers is teach them how to cook.” Students in this program learn about healthy eating, how to read a recipe, cooking on a budget and food preparation skills such as how to properly use knives in the kitchen.

In the Fall of 2017, Norman Johnston constructed a greenhouse that will, according to gardening teacher Laura Cardiff, “lengthen the growing season, provide even more food for the students and even more opportunities to learn about sustainability, food security, horticulture and nutrition.” A current challenge is how to balance gardening with other subjects. Laura would like to see a Health and Wellbeing Specialist  program focused on garden to table. The teachers would also love to see all students take a foods course during their time in high school.

Norman Johnston is well connected to the Ottawa community. A partnership with Gourmet Cuisine helps them acquire used kitchen equipment and the grocery store chains Whole Foods and Metro donate food to the school . A local senior sorority group also collects and donates food for students in need. Seniors from a local residence sometimes help with the garden. The school built raised beds to help the seniors work more easily in the garden. Local chefs also volunteer their time. Recently, Karly Ireland, executive chef at the Nature Museum, came and gave a workshop for the students on making five meals for under $50. Norman Johnston teachers are always looking for more connections to their local community. Sally would like to work with nearby farms to use extra or unsellable produce for the cooking program. She has also set up a partnership with Just Food Farm, located down the road, to host Co-op students and farm field trips.

Sally, Mark and Laura are continually thinking of ways to expand the program at Norman Johnston. Most recently they have been looking for startup funding to purchase a shipping container and fill it with hydroponic lettuce. They want to develop a program where their students will supply Alternate Programs across the city with lettuce and greens for their salad bars.

Norman Johnston’s unique Farm to Table program works because as Sally says, learning about personal food security through growing and cooking leads to happier students. In a program where just coming to school is a major challenge for some students, happier students mean greater academic successes and better future outcomes.

Story:Allegra Newman