Food literacy, when taken literally, means a person’s ability to correctly read food labels and Canada’s Food Guide and the aptitude to comprehend basic nutrition well enough to apply that knowledge to food preparation. Food literacy also includes understanding how food is grown and produced, where it originates, how production affects the environment and who has access to what types of foods.
The need to introduce food into school life is the most compelling at the primary level, when children are just starting to establish food preferences, make independent choices and influence their friends. Growing Chefs! was conceived in Vancouver B.C. by Chef Merri Schwartz in 2006, as she identified a need to articulate the story of the food we eat. Believing in greater engagement between chefs, farmers and the general public, she set out to educate children, families, and community members about nutrition, sustainability and healthy food systems. Schwartz achieved this by providing programs, seminars, and workshops in classrooms to promote local and healthy eating.
After working with Schwartz and recognizing the influence that Growing Chefs! was having in Vancouver, Andrew Fleet was inspired to launch the program when he returned to London, Ontario. Consequently, The Growing Chefs! Ontario Classroom Gardening Project was established in the spring of 2008 at Tecumseh Public School. Fleet is the Executive Director of Growing Chefs! Ontario.
What was initially known as the Classroom Gardening Project has been redesigned as a full-school project. The Growing Chefs! team visits every class in each partner school allowing individual schools to contribute time and effort into the coordination piece of the programming. With this model, Growing Chefs! is able to reach three times the number of elementary students annually, that’s 2,600 students up from 800. “Kids are well educated in our school system on health and they know they need to be making healthy choices but we don’t show them how to actually do that,” Fleet explains. “That’s the Growing Chefs! philosophy — you give kids a chance to cook real food with real flavour with a real chef.”
This year Growing Chefs! hired Katherine Puzara as the lead chef for the elementary school project, Fresh Food Frenzy, and Growing Communities. Puzara has helped to redesign and expand the workshops and lesson plans, while working to challenge the perceived limitations of children and youth in the kitchen. The program welcomes children from public schools to the Covent Garden Market where they are given a list of ingredients to go and find in the outdoor farmers’ market. Afterwards they go upstairs to the Market Kitchen and prepare a healthy and seasonal meal.
“The experience teaches the children the difference between a farmers’ market and a grocery store, and we get to explore concepts with the kids such as why it is important to eat locally, and what are heirloom vegetables,” says Puzara. “In the older grades seven and eight we have the children doing everything possible from working on knife skills, mise en place, working clean, and plating and serving skills. It is a real accomplishment when they leave; they really take away some amazing practical life skills.”
Chris Meloche, Executive Chef, The Beet Café program, has been a stalwart volunteer since 2008 and was hired full-time to run the program. The Beet is an educational, skill-building program for youth with a focus on healthy food preparation, hospitality and business development. Led by some of London’s foremost chefs, and Growing Chefs!’ youth staff prepare delicious healthy food for school hot lunch programs, and make appearances at festivals, all the while learning invaluable life skills.
Projects Coordinator Sunni Vann has been at the heart of everything at Growing Chefs! this year, from communications, coordination, and working on front lines.
London Waldorf School is running licensed toddler and preschool programs for the first time this year. In order to comply with the new licensing, the school is required to serve hot lunches to these two groups of very small children. “We immediately thought of Growing Chefs! to partner with on this project because we are both committed to the same principles of providing nourishing, quality experiences for young children. The thought of being able to provide these children with local, thoughtful, scratch-made food was one we really couldn’t compromise on,” explains Ruth Baer, Administrative Chair, London Waldorf School.The Montessori Academy of London has worked with Growing Chefs! since 2008, by using their students as test subjects for their School program at all ages. “So when we got thinking about providing a lunch program that was not only nutritious, but had community, educational and ethical impacts I contacted Andrew Fleet almost two years ago, to figure out if we could partner on this,” says Margaret Whitley, Executive Director, Montessori Academy of London. “Our hope was by doing this, Growing Chefs! would further their mission, our students would have a lunch experience that is completely integrated into our Montessori approach, and there are additional ripple effects both short term and long term for the whole community.”
The Child Care and Early Years Act, 2014 (CCEYA) came into effect on August 31, 2015, establishing new rules governing child care in Ontario. “[This] was a catalyst … I think our implementation and the tremendous work Growing Chefs! and The Beet Café program is doing in re-shaping lunch programs [provides] models that could change a generation, in how they develop their senses, cultural awareness and economic impact of local food choices,” states Whitley. “Not only do we embrace the menus that Growing Chefs! are providing, all of our children (18 months to six years) are setting the tables, serving each other using fragile place settings and serving dishes. Our lunches support practical life skills, sensorial education, development of grace and courtesy around meal time and are a true celebration of community many days in our classroom. As a long-time educator I think we completely underestimate the potential of our children around learning to try new foods and helping to educate their palates”.
Over the years, a who’s who of local chefs have participated in the Growing Chefs! program. The chefs include Andrew Wolwowicz from The Springs Restaurant, who has been on the Board of Directors of Growing Chefs! since 2010, Jeff Fortner of The River Room, Kim Sutherland of Budweiser Gardens, Paul Harding, Scott Newman and Jason Schubert of The Only On King, Nancy Abra of From My Garden, Dani Murphy of The Root Cellar, Kris Pageau formerly of The London Hunt Club, Shauna Stewart formerly of The London Club, Shane Jones of The Springs Restaurant, Wade Fitzgerald of Fanshawe College, Mark Kitching from Waldo’s on King, Ryan Irwin of Fellini’s in Stratford, Yoda Olinyk of Yoda’s Private Catering, Yam Gurung of Momo’s at the Market, Patrick Dunham of Patrick’s Beans, Amanda Jeffrey of London Hunt Club and Fanshawe College, Chris Chitty formerly of Delta Armouries, Aaron Cowell of The Only On King and The Early Bird, Ellen Lacroix of the Great Canadian Superstore, Vicci Coughlin of the Telegraph House, Dan Garlough of Crossings Pub, Laura Wall of Petit Paris, Tracy Little of The Springs Restaurant, Arif Kalid of Dolcetto Restaurant and Ted Sinasac of Sisters of St. Joseph, chefs David Rossen, Brian Magee, Kent Van Dyk and Carolyn Nesbitt-Larking and culinary farmer Paul Spence of Chatham-Kent Table, to name a few.
Based on the idea that education can alter behavior, Growing Chefs! and its many volunteers have made tremendous strides by changing the way many children perceive food and encouraging them to become excited about nutritious and healthy food choices.
Bryan Lavery is eatdrink’s Food Editor and Writer at Large.