Richmond school board rejects a healthy-food program

School board turned down a $25,000 grant for a salad-bar initiative because of operating costs and lack of school staff support

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      A long-time food activist in Richmond is pushing her city to bring healthy, local food into schools directly from local farmers.

      “In terms of health, I don’t think the statistics lie when they say that we do have an obesity and diabetes problem,” Arzeena Hamir, onetime food security coordinator in Richmond schools, told the Georgia Straight by phone. “It is more apparent in the U.S., but Canada is not far behind. And so I think what is happening is the kids are feeling the brunt of our very busy lifestyles. They’re eating highly processed foods full of salt, sugar, and fat, and they are becoming addicted to those foods and not choosing the healthier items when given a choice.”

      Hence, Hamir—also a mother of two—has hooked into a provincewide initiative that until recently was called Farm to School, which she described as trying to “inject fresh produce” into a school system that generally does not offer many nutritious options for kids.

      According to Vancouver consultant Joanne Bays, who founded the program in 2007 under the auspices of the Public Health Association of B.C., there are now 55 schools in the province signed on to the plan, with six of those located in Vancouver and one in Delta. Richmond does not yet have one participating. Hamir wants to change that.

      “Well, the majority of schools who take on Farm to School start with what’s called a Farm to School salad-bar program,” Hamir explained about the five-year-old project. “So the school purchases a tabletop salad-bar unit, which costs under $1,000. And then they stock it with fresh fruits and vegetables; often [a] grain, like couscous or something else; and then one protein—boiled eggs or something like that. So, the complete meal. And then parents are asked to pay, on average…$3 per child [per meal].”

      In a phone interview with the Straight, Bays—who is cochair of Vancouver’s Food Policy Council—said she is now calling the initiative Farm to Cafeteria, as the scope has widened beyond schools and a simple one-farm-per-school model.

      “That model [one school, one farm] works really well, but not in every situation, especially salad bars in the winter and that type of thing,” Bays said. “We kind of moved along the way to the notion that a Farm to School program seeks to close the distance between the farm and the school.…‘Farm to Cafeteria’ is because…it’s also farm to university and farm to hospital.”

      Richmond school-board chair Donna Sargent confirmed that a private grant of $25,000 for a salad-bar program came to the board about a year ago and the board turned it down.

      “Our staff looked at it pretty in-depth for about six months and involved our medical health officer and our staff,” Sargent told the Straight. “And working through it, there were a number of issues that—pretty important issues—that came to light. So we chose not to go ahead with it.”

      Sargent said that once the $25,000 was used up, the board would have been on the hook, through its operating budget, for future costs. Also, according to Sargent, the board “did not have a school that wanted to take it up”.

      “There was no school at the time that said, ‘Yeah, you know what? We’ll do it,’ ” Sargent said. “We spoke about it again this year, because Arzeena was encouraging us to look at that. And the issues are the same. We have no staff people that would champion this at this time. We don’t have the money at this point to continue to do this.”

      Hamir and fellow supporters of local food, such as Richmond councillor Harold Steves, believe that situation will change down the road.

      “I’ve talked to some of our senior management staff at the City of Richmond, and we’re doing so many things,” Steves told the Straight by phone. “It’s not at the back burner, but it’s not at the front of the list.”