If you want it done right, cook it yourself

The new thinking in the war on junky cafeteria food: Get students into the kitchen
Pamela Cuthbert
Photo by Colin O'Connor

The lineups are long, the prices unbeatably low and the bounty of fresh and fragrant foods irresistible. Welcome to the Good Food Café, a new high school cafeteria in Toronto that its operator, FoodShare, claims can be a model for all Canadian high schools. The prototype is simple: Create a short menu, mostly vegetables, with mains such as lasagna ($3), sides such as baked beans ($0.50), plus a few desserts, like a pear tart, that feature fruit. Make everything tasty and from scratch. Use a kitchen with stoves and ovens (no deep-fryer or microwave) and buy fresh, quality ingredients. Presto: You have a solution to the serious issue of school nutrition—and an olive branch in the fight between kids who want junk food and the parents and experts who recognize its effects.

Straightforward? In fact, says FoodShare head Debbie Field, “It has taken us many, many years to make it work.” Cafeterias don’t have a captive audience: High school kids are allowed to leave the premises for lunch. And with provincial governments—pressured by parents—banning the sale of junk foods and sweet drinks, many standard cafeterias are closing due to lost revenues.

“We thought we were going to lose our shirts on this,” admits Field. Instead, almost a third of the student population is showing up so routinely that, within weeks, the Good Food Café, which opened at École secondaire Toronto Ouest this fall, was covering some of its costs. Grade 9 student Henri Lavallée eats there every day. “It’s really good,” he says in between bites of a burrito. “But it’s healthy for you.”

This is the latest salvo in the war on what Paul Finkelstein calls “cafeteria crap.” Ten years ago, in Stratford, Ont., presaging Jamie Oliver’s campaign against junk food in U.K. schools, Finkelstein started the Northwestern Secondary School’s hip Screaming Avocado Café, drawing students away from the greasy cafeteria down the hall to prepare, serve and eat dishes such as braised rabbit with olives. Similar programs are cropping up at B.C.’s South Delta Secondary and Gulf Islands Secondary schools, and one planned for a new school in Souris, P.E.I., has students cooking for kindergarten to Grade 12 kids.

Alvin Rebick, who runs Good Food, says the next step is to get students into the kitchen. “We can cover our food costs, but not the labour,” he says. Starting in February, students enrolled in the school’s cooking classes will train under FoodShare chef Jesus Gomez. “We’ll get students feeding students.” In a minor way, it’s already happening. As part of a business class focusing on healthy foods and the environment, a handful of students cook in the cafeteria for one hour every week. Students Raphael Burns and Anjelika Rivero Ednet will join Lavallée in developing a “healthy foods” business plan. Burns says he chose this course because, “It’s really important that, while we’re growing, we start having a healthy lifestyle.”

There’s one more piece of the puzzle: “the support of the school boards,” says Rebick. The school’s principal, Norman Gaudet, is on board. “Every one of the Grade 11 students signed up for the culinary arts class, and the Grade 10s were begging me to open it up to them,” he says, adding, “They will get a skill that might lead to a job, but also they get a life skill.” Ibrahim Hader, principal of the Catholic E.S.C. Saint-Frère-André school, housed in the same building, sees another benefit. “Many of my students are poor and they are hungry,” he says. “This food is not expensive and it’s healthy.”

Both cafés operate on tight budgets: The Avocado runs a catering company to support costs, while Good Food is subsidized by FoodShare, a not-for-profit organization. “We have the resources, the networks, to systemize it. If the boards get onside, we can take it nationwide.”

The students would like that. Their only complaint: the lineups. “Yep,” says Burns, “They need more staff.”

Rebick would like it, too. “It’s a joyful thing to look at a 14-year-old boy eating smoky baked beans with arugula and a mango salad,” he says. “Kids will choose healthy if they have the choice.”