“The problem with selling food to kids is that it creates a disparity, if you don’t have money; you cannot buy food.” Scott Hall
Located on Treaty 6 territory, Maskwacis Education Schools Commission (MESC) operates eleven schools, covering 4 nations; Samson Cree Nation, Emineskin Cree Nation, Montana First Nation and Louis Bull Tribe. The schools are:
- Ermineskin Kindergarten,
- Ermineskin Elementary
- Ermineskin Jr/Sr High School (EJSH)
- Ermineskin Alternate School
- Maskwacis Outreach School
- Grace Marie Swampy Elementary School
- Nipisihkanahk Elementary School
- Nipisihkanahk High School
- Kisipatnahk School
- Meskanahk-Ka-Nipa-Wit School
- Mimiw Sahkahkian School
Scott Hall began working for Miyo Wahkohtowin Education Authority on Ermineskin Cree Nation in 2012 as a high school Foods teacher. He was asked to spearhead a breakfast/lunch program that was initiated by the outgoing Foods teacher. At the request of the Miyo Wahkohtowin Education Authority Board and Superintendent, Scott introduced the Universal School Food Strategy (USFS) at his school the year he was hired.
The goal of the USFS was to ensure students not only had daily access to food, but to ensure every student had consistent access to healthy, nutrient dense food. The USFS started at one school with 300 students in 2012. Following a successful launch in its first year, the program expanded over the following 9 years, and now serves 2400 students and 400 staff across eleven schools and provides daily access to healthy and delicious nutrient dense breakfast, lunch and snacks.
The program launched with Scott teaching commercial foods in a central kitchen with the help of an educational assistant. Scott and his students put a great amount of energy into the daily task of preparing high quality food, constructing meals from scratch using whole ingredients and serving 300 students at Ermineskin Jr/Sr High School. Initially, there was some resistance to the emergence of a new food program serving up healthy, nutrient dense meals, while removing vending machines and eliminating the marketing of unhealthy food items in the school. However, students and staff adjusted and with daily exposure to new dietary changes and students grew an affinity to the hot new flavors and quality fresh fruits.
In 2013, 450 students from the adjacent Ermineskin Elementary school were added to the program. Two employees, Scott, and the students from EJSH were cooking for 750 students. With the increase in students, the operations expanded to add more equipment, a van, a salad bar, and the hiring of a driver to distribute the food to the second school.
In 2014, 250 students from Ermineskin Kindergarten school were added to the program for a total of 1000 students fed per day, marking the beginning of a true universal access school food program from K-12. The program was very successful, celebrated by students and supported by teachers and Maskwacisak families, and continued to grow.
In 2018, the stars aligned and an amalgamation occurred of the Four Nations’ education systems. Four separate Nations signed on to hand over educational control to an independent community school authority, Maskwacis Education Schools Commission. Since 2018, high school students have supported 22 kitchen staff to prepare food daily for 2400 students and 400 staff members from eleven schools. The food is, and always will be, free for all students and staff.
In 2019, the program was given the name Nanâtohk Mîciwin by Maskwacisak knowledge keepers, and was selected as Farm to Cafeteria Canada’s Michelle Lessard Award recipient for the “creation of a stellar Farm to School program in Canada that is contributing to a sustainable regional school food system”
Over the years, there were many challenges in the implementation and development stages of Nanâtohk Mîciwin. In the beginning, removing chocolate milk and eliminating marketing of unhealthy food to children in schools was met with criticism from some students and staff. However, by ensuring the provision of regular, healthy snacks throughout the day, such as hand fruits, freshly baked goods and access to water filtration systems, criticism transformed into celebration and gratitude.
One significant challenge during the amalgamation stage in 2018 was that many schools were not equipped for cooking a full school meal. Each school had different production abilities with regard to space limitations, ventilation, electrical capacity and equipment. School spaces were modified, and cooking implements installed, in order to have functional and safe kitchens. In some cases other spaces in the school had to be modified to be used as a kitchen, such as a computer lab.
During the summer of 2018, leading up to the first school year of the newly formed MESC, and planning for tripling of food production, a large central food distribution site needed to be established. To meet this need, a former grocery store was converted to a large food storage and distribution site for Nanâtohk Mîciwin operations. Delivery trucks were purchased and drivers were hired and trained.
Nanâtohk Mîciwin has become stronger over the years by celebrating successes, addressing challenges, and making changes to the program as needed. Some of the key factors that have led to the success of this program include:
- Having a good relationship with and support of the principals, superintendent, board, and other administrators.
- Creating strong relationships with many local vendors to purchase food as locally as possible.
- Increasing communication for program success since the schools were located in different communities.
- Thinking like an entrepreneur by focusing on a solution rather than the problem.
- Always considering the economy of space and time in the kitchen to be more efficient.
- Planning for the menu, but keeping it subject to change – this allows for change based on food availability and flexibility with purchasing.
Since the implementation of the food program, metrics gathered from year-to-year indicate a correlation between a universal school food program and an increase in graduation rates, increase of attendance, a decrease in violent incidents, and an overall increase in academic success among the students.
Maskwacis Education Schools Commission (MESC) Nanâtohk Mîciwin (Universal School Food Strategy – USFS) Adaptation During COVID-19 Pandemic
The following story shares how MESC continued to feed and educate its students while schools were closed throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. As well, it highlights the creativity of the staff even during uncertain times.
When schools were ordered to be closed due to Covid-19 response measures, the communities had many concerns about how students would continue to learn and access food. School staff and the Nanâtohk Mîciwin team worked together to address these concerns.
When schools were closed in March 2020, there was a large amount of produce left in the Nanâtohk Mîciwin distribution center. Scott coordinated efforts with the Maskwacis Health Authority Transportation department to distribute 10,000 lbs of produce to student homes in the first two days of the pandemic closure.
Immediately following the closure of the schools, district emergency management teams from each of the 4 nations began meeting to establish a response plan. Families were asked to stay home, security checkpoints were constructed and staffed 24hrs a day, but people needed supplies. Nanâtohk Mîciwin proposed a healthy food hamper operation to the 4 nations. It included 1 large produce box, 1 large dry goods box and 1 large frozen meat box. Utilizing the business connections, buying power and logistical capacity of the universal school food strategy, nations were able to quickly mobilize hamper assembly teams at hockey arenas and the food bank.
Food hampers worked great for households but, in planning for relaunch of school in fall 2020, the most cost-effective idea for school food was to prepare frozen ready-to-eat meals in ovenable trays. Every week 8 to 10 staff worked in 2 kitchens to prepare 4-5000kg of casserole-type dishes made from whole ingredients. Each student received a 2kg frozen ready-to-eat packaged meal per week. Some households received up to 10 or more of these meals a week, depending on the number of students living in the home.
Learning-from-home was a challenge. Despite each student receiving a chromebook, in many cases, there was no internet available to connect to online learning platforms. To ensure students were able to continue their learning while restrictions prevented them from being in the class, school staff prepared paper learning packages for each student each week.
After a week of preparation of food and learning packages, each student received their frozen ready-to-eat meal and their learning package for the following week. At designated sites, once a week, school staff would load buses with learning packages and prepackaged food and deliver them to students’ homes. Being well prepared, the delivery of the food and learning packages to 2400 students from 11 schools in four Nations took approximately 90 minutes.
From food hampers to frozen ready-to-eat meals, the students of the 11 schools were fed throughout Covid-19 pandemic thanks to the response from the 4 nations, MESC’s commitment and the dedication of the Nanâtohk Mîciwin team.