New Westminster Schools is kicking off a nationally significant initiative in early 2019 with the launch of Phase One of a district-wide, universally accessible, cost-shared lunch program.

The school nourishment program will unfold over two years and increase access for all students to healthy, nutritious lunches. The program will be introduced at three schools – starting on February 5 at École Qayqayt Elementary school, February 7 at Queen Elizabeth Elementary school, and February 8 at Queensborough Middle School.

“What we are doing in New Westminster is pioneering in its approach,” said Quirina Gamblen, the district’s Director of Instruction, Programs and Planning. Gamblen noted that Canada ranks 37th of 41 countries when it comes to access to healthy food for children, as highlighted in a 2017 UNICEF report. It’s also the only country among the G8 group of industrialized nations without a national school-based meal program.

That’s particularly concerning given evidence of the link between healthy eating and student success.

At New Westminster Schools, the ground-breaking nourishment program is the outcome of a Board of Education motion in June 2017 asking staff for a report on the steps to be taken and costs associated with: “a district-wide plan to address food security and healthy eating that will make available food programs to all of our schools so that no child is hungry and every child eats healthy.”

In March of this year, the board supported moving forward with one of three proposed models for a coordinated food program that re-allocates resources and best meets student needs in the district. The model builds on CommunityLINK (Learning Includes Nutritional Knowledge) funding, provided through the Ministry of Education to support meal programs for vulnerable students.

Good-food meals, ready to go….

The New Westminster Schools School nourishment program is ready to go. A caterer has been hired, menus are being developed, and food tasting events will be held with students in late January, and with parents at an information night January 10. The program will be voluntary and provide a range of menu options on a daily, weekly or monthly basis through an easy-to-use online platform. It will support parents and families in offering healthy daily lunches – and will ensure no student is hungry at school.

Those families choosing to participate will contribute an optional percentage per meal to support a subsidy. Those students who do not have reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable and nutritious food will be able to access full and partial subsidies without stigma. The school meal program will not interfere with Parent Advisory Council fundraising programs.

Food for thought…

The program will link the conversation about food to the school curriculum and to healthy eating habits that could well inform student behaviour for a lifetime. As BC’s Auditor General highlighted in a recent report, schools are ideal settings for promoting overall healthy living. The goal is to shift meal programs from a stigmatizing emphasis on support for vulnerable children to a broadly accessible program that is fully integrated into the school, the curriculum, and the community.

That’s key when 20% of children and youth in BC are overweight, and 1 in 3 people in BC suffers from chronic diseases that are largely preventable through healthy eating and physical activity (See BC Auditor General Report, May 2018).

For students, the connections are already beginning to be made. BC’s redesigned curriculum is supporting learning from kindergarten to high school about such issues as local food and the environment; health and media in relation to food; composting and waste reduction; and growing school gardens. Aspects of the food system can also be incorporated in math, science, social studies and more.

Research for the future…

Interest in the leading edge program is evident in BC and beyond. Researchers at the University of British Columbia and the University of Saskatchewan are evaluating New Westminster Schools’ program in partnership with the district and Fraser Health. Their work in Year 1 is supported by a $25,000 grant from Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

Phasing in the introduction of the school nourishment program will also allow for issues to be identified and addressed, ensuring a smooth roll out to all 11 elementary and middle schools starting in September 2019. In the meantime, school-specific food programs will continue, as will breakfast programs currently running at some schools.

A growing concern: hearing the call…

New Westminster Schools’ nourishment initiative is being launched at a time when there is a pressing call for a federally supported Canada-wide school food program – and when child poverty and chronic disease continue to be an issue in BC. The Coalition for Healthy School Food, representing 40 organizations across the country, is urging investment from the federal government in a cost-shared Universal Healthy School Food Program. That call was endorsed by the British Columbia School Trustees Association (BCSTA) this year at its 2018 annual general meeting.

An ongoing challenge in BC is the fact that one in five children in BC continue to grow up in poverty, as highlighted in the Child Poverty Report Card 2018. Systemic issues particularly affect indigenous children, new immigrant children and children in visible or racialized minority groups.

Locally, City of New Westminster statistics show that 10,995 or 15.6% of the working population live in poverty (date) – including 1,700 children and youth, 10.2% of whom face food insecurity on a regular basis. That means they do not have reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food. (See related.) In addition, a survey conducted at New Westminster Schools last year found that 97% of staff surveyed saw food as an issue in their classroom.

The food conversation has started…

Earlier this month, five teams of students from nearly every school in the district put on chef’s hats and paired up with a New Westminster police officer for the first-ever Cooking with Cops event. Each team chose recipes from around the world, learned some kitchen safety tips, and got to work with their team officer in the kitchens of Fraser River Middle School. Together, students and cops made meals (Thai chicken and chickpea curry, for instance) to serve 80 guests – including the mayor of New Westminster and the Chief of New Westminster Police.

Thanks to the New Westminster Police Child and Youth Resource Unit, officers liaise with schools to educate youth about safety, intervene when students at risk, and support positive behaviours and healthy habits. The Cooking with Cops event put food at the centre of a shared experience – and proved a great way to make friends and build relationships.

From school gardens and school curriculum – to our new healthy school lunch program – we’re feeding the future at New Westminster Schools.

This article was originally published in December 2018 on and has been redistributed in a truncated format with permission from School District No. 40 (New Westminster).