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The salad bar at École Saint-Denis, Saint-Denis-sur-Richelieu (Québec)

École Saint-Denis is an elementary school located in Saint-Denis-sur-Richelieu, Montérégie, Quebec and it received a Farm to School Salad Bar grant in 2018. The school has had a lot of success involving its students in the operation of the salad bar and integrating it into the curriculum.

In addition to helping set up the salad bar, students grow some of the produce for it and learn about healthy eating through curriculum-related activities!

The “Healthy Choice” initiative, École primaire Saint-Denis, Saint-Denis-sur-Richelieu (Québec)

Before we get into the Q&A, let’s learn a little more about the school (all of the information about the salad bar and snacks is from pre-COVID times):

École Saint-Denis is a public elementary school with a population of 170 students. It is located in a rural village.

Its farm to school program is coordinated entirely by the school’s before- and after-school care service, which has 80 to 100 students enrolled in it each day. The salad bar complements the childcare service’s other projects that aim to encourage healthy eating habits, including gardening and cooking initiatives.

Launching the salad bar, École Saint-Denis, Saint-Denis-sur-Richelieu (Québec)

École Saint-Denis’ farm to school program has been built from the childcare service’s “Healthy Choice” initiative, which was the first step in its broader healthy eating project. This initiative allows young people to carry out, each week, activities related to the preparation of healthy snacks, such as a smoothie workshop. Other projects, such as the salad bar and the gardens, were born from this initiative.

The salad bar is supported by a committee made up of the school childcare service coordinator (Véronique St-Germain), an educator from the childcare service who is responsible for cooking and gardening workshops (Véronique Charron), a nutritionist and health promotion advisor from the CISSS (Centre intégré de santé et de services sociaux de l’Outaouais), as well as community partners, the municipality, recreation staff and volunteers.

Vertical hydroponic grow tower at École Saint-Denis, Saint-Denis-sur-Richelieu (Québec)

The salad bar is mainly supplied with local products through partnerships with a local grocery store (Bonduelle), a local organic farm when its products are in season (La Fibre Végétale), and a local orchard. The school’s gardens and indoor growing lab also provide much of the produce for the salad bar.

Students enrolled in the childcare program, with the help of an educator, harvest and prepare the vegetables every Monday so that all students in the school and members of the school team can enjoy the salad bar the following day.

Salad that has been harvested in the indoor lab for the salad bar

Q&A

Check out our Q&A with Véronique Saint-Germain (VSG) to learn more:

Can you tell us a little more about how your salad bar operated in normal times (before COVID)?

VSG: Our salad bar operates every Tuesday, providing about 100 meals each week, with about 2-3 adult volunteers and about 10-20 students helping with all aspects, including preparation and serving. While a coordinator runs the project with the childcare group and the help of volunteers, the students have become completely self-sufficient and perform their tasks independently. Parents and grandparents also volunteer to help with set-up and after the service.

We want the program to be affordable, so we charge $3 per salad (or $5 for a drink and dessert). But to make sure that all students have access, families who can’t afford the salad bar can contact the organizers to receive support from community partners.

If we have a lot of extra food, we sometimes advertise a salad bar the next day to use up the leftovers, or uneaten food is turned into soups and smoothies. Table scraps are composted to nurture the school’s gardens.

How do you involve students in the salad bar process?

VSG: Students enrolled in before- and after-school childcare service are involved in the salad bar in many different ways with the collaboration of an educator.

For example, the students make menu choices. They grow and harvest the food, then they help prepare the vegetables the day before the salad bar or they may make muffins for dessert.

On the day of the salad bar, they are involved in all aspects of the logistics: some prepare the trays, others serve, others are responsible for the drinks, still others help with composting or make sure the trash cans are in place.

Students who participate have a card: when they participate 5 times, they get a free snack or meal.

Serving the salad bar at École Saint-Denis, Saint-Denis-sur-Richelieu (Québec)

Why did you choose to involve your students in the implementation of the farm to school program?

VSG: It came from the kids themselves – one student told her mom that she wanted to make her own smoothie and didn’t want a pre-made smoothie, so her teacher came up with the idea of making healthy snacks. Her childcare provider then came up with the idea of healthy snacks with the Healthy Choice initiative. That led to the garden and then to the salad bar!

We really feel that if we involve the students in everything, from planting to serving food to gardening, they will be much more interested in tasting the food. This leads to big changes in the students’ diets. Raising awareness about healthy eating is very important at school, and the childcare team has seen the impact of their activities spread to the rest of the school! Seeing a child run around the school to get a second spinach smoothie is a win.

How do you connect the school's salad bar and garden to the curriculum?

VSG: It’s a challenge because a lot of the farm to school initiatives are coordinated by the before- and after-school service, not the school itself. But it is the child care service coordinators and educators who take the initiative to contact the teachers and make the link to the school program.

For example, the childcare educator who coordinates the cooking activities will work with the teachers in advance to make the connection between the recipes and the activities. She may announce, “This week’s theme will be potatoes, so you can make the connection to these topics.” In turn, the childcare team tries to incorporate this theme into the salad bar (e.g., make a potato salad). So students can do a preparatory activity, study that theme in class, then go get it from the salad bar! The centre really tries to make these connections between activities.

Another example: following a workshop facilitated by Croquarium, Véronique brought the idea of working on the development of an irrigation system to a grade 5 and 6 class. Their teacher introduced the topic in the science class and it really encouraged their participation in the gardens afterwards!

The before- and after-school team also encourages workshops during school hours. A childcare educator conducts workshops on healthy eating and food skill development for all students in the school, some of which are linked to the salad bar (although it has been closed since the beginning of the pandemic).

For the gardens, participation is on a voluntary basis. For example, the seedling workshop is offered at lunchtime to all students and those who are interested participate. The students are very proud to plant their seedlings and bring them to the salad bar.

The key is to build on their interest. Some students see gardening as a way to relax, others come more to enjoy, and still others enjoy making garden signs and doing communications.

Can you tell us a little more about your gardens?

VSG: In 2017, the school partnered with a local organization (Mouvement VeRT) and the city to create community gardens in St. Denis. The 3 vegetable gardens now at the school allow students to participate in all stages of vegetable production. Students in all grades grow carrots, cucumbers, peppers, cherry tomatoes, pumpkins, rhubarb, raspberries, kale, beets, beans and herbs. The school also received a 100 Degrés “Growing Forward” grant in partnership with the Quebec Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to improve its vegetable gardens.

A farm lab was also implemented in 2019, consisting of an indoor tower and other indoor gardening systems to grow and harvest salad each week that ends up on the salad bar menu. By the end of the school year, youth could harvest up to 5 large bowls of salad greens; enough to fill the salad bar every Tuesday!

Students gardening, École Saint-Denis, Saint-Denis-sur-Richelieu (Québec)

The vegetables harvested from the school’s gardens are also used for the culinary workshops of the “Healthy Choice” project. As part of this project, children are invited to participate in the preparation of healthy snacks and the choice of recipes to serve. This facilitates access to low-cost healthy snacks. For example, children can make occasional smoothies using their “bike blender”. We invite parents to come in when their child’s class is going to cook as well.

Ultimately, we believe that if a child prepares a meal, they will want to taste it, change their diet and make healthier choices.

What challenges did you face in involving the students, and how did you overcome them?

VSG: The first challenge is that Involving students requires more time, more staff, and therefore more financial resources.

Another challenge is that some children are disinterested. At first, the garden activities were mandatory for students, but the educators realized that some of the students were less interested than others. So now the activities are organized on a voluntary basis. The same goes for the recipes. What we noticed is that the students motivate each other: the students who do the cooking activities and taste their recipes really inspire the others afterwards.

Another big challenge is reaching out to other children in the school who are not in the childcare service. The trick has been to seek funding to provide training for teachers and the childcare team on gardening and cooking workshops, with the goal of doing them more frequently during school hours. We have asked Croquarium to provide a gardening training and coaching workshop so that the childcare staff can repeat the workshops this year. Similarly, Ateliers 5 Épices provided training on culinary workshops to a teacher and the school childcare team. They also offered advice on how to adapt during the pandemic.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the culinary workshops offered regularly in classrooms have been very successful with the children.

How do you promote your salad bar program?

VSG: We send emails to families and have a Facebook page for “The Healthy Choice” where we post information about the salad bar and connect with parents online.

We also have the monthly newsletter “Le Petit Denis” at school, where we share recipes that the kids have enjoyed and small articles about the salad bar.

When we launched the first salad bar, we invited community partners, our sponsors, dignitaries and the school board’s superintendent to an event where the students prepared and served a small meal. We also hosted a class visit with the nutritionist at our launch where we talked about what a healthy plate looks like, how it is made up, etc.

In general, we try to have the salad bar present at events. At the 20th anniversary of the CPE (school board), we brought out the salad bar and it was served by the students to the families who came to celebrate. We offered a small snack and served flavored water to the dignitaries. We also took the salad bar to the old St. Denis market, which can accommodate 20,000 visitors over a weekend.

How have students, and your school community in general, responded to your farm to school program?

 

VSG: It’s great to see the excitement that the salad bar generates for students, parents, and even the entire staff every Tuesday. Students ask questions about the menu and what to try; it’s a lot of fun, especially to see the students serving or being involved in composting or waste management. It’s really great to see students enjoying a salad bar each week filled with locally grown vegetables, either from the school or from local organic farms.

And being involved brings a lot of responsibility and pride, and contributes to the students’ academic success. You can see that the kids are motivated to come to school in the morning, proud of their skills and proud to be involved.

It’s great to see the parents involved as well, and the whole school actually. In 2019, we won the Patriots School Service Center Inspiration Award in the “Living Environment” category for school spirit. This category commends a project that contributes to the development of a stimulating, healthy, and safe physical and psychological environment for the community. We were so proud! For the students, it was like bringing home the Stanley Cup!

Participating in these farm to school programs was a natural fit for Saint-Denis and brought a lot to our school.

Salad bar day, École Saint-Denis, Saint-Denis-sur-Richelieu (Québec)

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