Healthy hearts equal healthy student minds

Childhood obe­sity is becoming a major con­cern.
That’s why the Ontario Student Nutrition Program and the Ontario Greenhouse Vege­table Growers (OGVG) have team­ed to create a pilot school nutrition program called Heal­thy Hearts, Healthy Minds.
The project, funded in part by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada through the Agricul­tural Adaptation Council’s Can­Advance program, offers a selection of fresh fruits and veg­e­tables to elementary school children as snacks, giv­ing them a midday nutritional boost – one that’s healthier than the high sugar or high-sodium snacks that were typically found in vending machines before the Ontario government banned  them in elementary schools in 2004. In many cases, the snacks were produced by Ontario greenhouse vegetable farmers.
The initial pilot project, which ran in ten schools in Windsor-Essex and six in Tor­onto, delivered fresh washed and sliced greenhouse produce and later expanded to include everything from apples, celery, cranberries and cherry toma­toes, and mini-cucumbers. Teach­ers then found it easy to distribute the snacks prior to recess.
“The pilot project was es­pecially well-suited to elemen­tary schools because it gets young children eating fruits and vegetables regularly,” said Stephanie Segave, regional co-ordinator for Windsor-Essex’s Ontario Student Nutrition program. “And that makes them more likely to develop good nutritional habits as they grow up.”
A 2004 report by the Chief Medical Officer of Health showed that in 2003, almost one out of every two adults in Ontario was overweight or obese.
Between 1981 and 1996, the number of obese children in Canada between the ages of 7 and 13 tripled. That is con­tributing to a dramatic rise in illnesses such as type 2 dia­betes, heart disease, stroke, hyper­tension and some can­cers.
“Primary schools are a great place to start because studies have found that we can change eating patterns more easily to include nutritious food at a young age,” said Bette Jean Crews, chairman of the Agri­cultural Adaptation Council. “What’s more, the classroom atmosphere is ideal for serving nutritious foods. Children who may be reluctant to eat healthy snacks are influenced posi­tively when they see their classmates enjoying them.”
The program in Windsor-Essex is now self-sustaining, but the question now arises as to how to develop this program on a provincial basis, working with entire school boards as opposed to single schools.
The first step towards a provincial program was taken this spring when approximately 50 schools and 13,000 children from across the London Catho­lic School Board took part.
Segave agreed that the “kids loved it.” We rotated products in order to expose the kids to a variety of fruits and vegetables but also had some ‘wild card days.’ At some schools, the principals really got into the action and challenged the kids to eat some of the more obscure vegetables including raw as­para­gus.”
What’s up next for the program? Surveys conducted by researchers at the University of Western Ontario and Uni­versity of Waterloo are current­ly being compiled with the results due this fall. It is anticipated the results will help to develop two delivery mod­els, one for a central (urban) system and one for rural areas.
The project is funded in part through the Victorian Order of Nurses, the Ontario Green­house Vegetable Growers, the Ontario Produce Marketing Association, A. Lassonde Inc. (Oasis Classic Juices) and $110,000 was provided by Agriculture and Agri-Food Can­ada through the Agricul­tural Adaptation Council’s CanAdvance program.
The Agricultural Adaptation Council is a non-profit, grass roots coalition of 71 agricultural, agribusiness and rural organizations dedicated to providing financial resources to help Ontario’s agriculture and agri-food industry remain profitable, grow and maintain its economic strength.