A PhD student from the Faculty of Medicine says there needs to be a culture shift in how we understand school food.
Emily Doyle is examining the school food system in Newfoundland and Labrador thanks to a $40,000 research grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.
Field to fork
She says using school food to educate kids about the overall food system—the path from the field to the fork—and the important role food plays in building healthy communities will help children in the long run.
“Building an understanding about the important connections between food, the community and the environment is increasingly important as our food system becomes more complex,” she said.
But, she insists, change has to occur at multiple levels.
“The real test of how good food is in schools can be seen in the health of our children,” said Ms. Doyle, a mother of three young children. “At this moment in time, we are dealing with an increase in the availability of energy-dense food coupled with a trend towards decreased physical activity and an increasing distance—both psychological and spatial—of the path that brings food to the plate.”
Ms. Doyle is completing her studies in the Division of Community Health and Humanities under the supervision of Dr. Martha Traverso-Yepez.
“The real test of how good food is in schools can be seen in the health of our children.”
A Memorial alumna, with an education degree and a master of philosophy in humanities, Ms. Doyle also has a degree from Acadia University and a diploma in farm management from McGill. She has lived in Nova Scotia, Quebec and South Korea. She says the time spent living away from home raised her awareness about the connections between food and sustainability.
“Living in cities like Montreal and Seoul, I became hooked on fish markets, farmers’ markets and alternative gardening projects,” she explained. “This all contributed to my desire to see what is possible for the Newfoundland and Labrador food system. Focusing on school food is, for me, a practical way of learning about the connections between health, society and the environment.”
Ms. Doyle’s interest in sustainable food choices snowballed after completing a research project in Harbour Grace a couple of years ago. It focused on the use of school gardens for health promotion. She says the greenhouse provided a positive learning environment for students and teachers but also encountered barriers to sustainability.
The project led Ms. Doyle to broaden her research focus from the school garden to the whole school food environment.
Ms. Doyle says she’s examined various models around the world which combine sensible meal options and experiential learning so that food becomes an educational experience.
That’s a similar goal of the non-profit community group Fishing for Success, based out of Petty Harbour. Led by Kimberly Orren and a team of volunteers, the organization shares and celebrates traditional fishing knowledge and culture by offering programming for children, their families and the community.
Ms. Orren says she wants more people to reconnect with what she calls our province’s “cultural food.”
“In Newfoundland and Labrador, our heritage is all about the fishery and fish,” explained Ms. Orren, who started the group in April 2014 and has engaged with thousands of people from across the province. “You have to look no further than our music, our art and our stories. They’re all connected to the fishery. Our heritage is our identity. Fishing for Success is about reconnecting young families with how their ancestors worked in the fishery and the important—and practical—role fish played in our communities.”
Seeking feedback from schools
For her part, Ms. Doyle says informing people, particularly children, about the connection between food and place is critical to growing healthy communities.
She says enhancing food literacy may lead to more nutritious food choices and eating practices, but it also has wider impacts on food culture, the local economy and the environment.
As part of her research, Ms. Doyle plans to survey schools in the province in order to understand characteristics of the current school food system, including knowledge, attitudes and needs among educators. She also plans to conduct interviews with a range of stakeholders, including government officials, school food providers, community organizations, parents and teachers.
“Food is a topical and tangible issue and I’m excited to be studying the connections between food and schools because I think there are many promising activities ongoing in the province.”
“For example, school gardens are gaining in popularity across the province. Through this research I hope to understand how can we enhance the relevance and effectiveness of such projects to promote healthier communities. Lots of questions and hopefully plenty of answers will come through my research.”