How New Brunswick schools have embraced healthy eating and Policy 711

PlayPlay
Policy 711 sets standards for the types of food that can be sold and served in New Brunswick schools.

Policy 711 sets standards for the types of food that can be sold and served in New Brunswick schools.

An introduction to Policy 711

BY SEAN SULLIVAN
HEPAC / CSAAP

Nearly a decade after New Brunswick issued a groundbreaking policy designed to help school-aged kids eat better and stay healthy, there have been major accomplishments and major challenges.

Policy 711: Healthier Foods and Nutrition in Public Schools,” launched in October 2005, was among the first policy of its kind in Canada and set standards for the types of food and beverages that could be sold and promoted in public schools.

Since then, schools, teachers, students and parents across the province have led a cultural shift in how New Brunswick youth eat. Initiatives such as the Community Food Action Program grant and CHEF’s toolkit are empowering communities and individuals to teach healthy eating habits kids will stick with for life. And schools are taking the lead in developing innovative ways to inspire students to choose milk over Gatorade, or quinoa over cheeseburgers.

Yet many questions still surround Policy 711: What is and isn’t allowed in schools? How is the policy enforced? How have schools adapted to more nutritious menus?

Welcome to HEPAC’s primer on Policy 711.

What is Policy 711?

Policy 711 divides food into three tiers based on their nutritional value: maximum, moderate and minimum. Food and beverages with minimal nutritional value — those with few nutrients but loads of fat, sugar and/or salt — had to be removed from all public school cafeterias, vending machines and fundraisers by 2007. Policy 711 spelled the end of pizza parties, cake walks and ice cream days.

Healthy snacks.

Healthy snacks.

Instead, schools were told to promote foods with maximum nutritional value, including whole grains, fresh vegetables and unprocessed meat. These foods must now make up the majority of foods served in school cafeterias and vending machines, and are to be available every day. Foods considered to be of “moderate” nutritional value, those that are a source of nutrients but may be high in fat, sugar or salt (think yogurt drinks, cheese and lean cold cuts), are allowed no more than twice per week.

Link: Department of Education: A Handbook for Policy 711
Link: Policy 711 – Healthier Foods and Nutrition in Public Schools

The policy was developed in response to “growing concerns over children’s eating habits,” then Minister of Education Madeleine Dubé said in 2005. “This policy makes it clear that we are committed to providing a school environment that maximizes students’ ability to learn and succeed.”

Research shows healthier eating habits contribute to both academic performance and the prevention of chronic diseases later in life, while eating habits developed during early childhood last through adulthood.

“Overwhelming evidence shows that healthy habits are established in childhood,” said Dr. Lynn Hansen, President of the New Brunswick Medical Society. “We should be doing everything we can to ensure that children have access to the best food available.”

Policy 711 also introduced a slew of suggestions to promote healthier eating and nutrition throughout the school community. Schools should hold activities that reinforce messages about healthier eating and nutrition, teachers should model healthy-eating behaviour for students, and parents should provide healthy lunches for their children.

With the advent of Policy 711, the sale of food with high fat, sugar and salt content has been effectively banned in New Brunswick schools since 2007, the year the policy was adopted provincewide.

But is it working?

While the province hasn’t formally evaluated Policy 711, a recent campaign by the New Brunswick Medical Society and N.B. Dietitians in Action suggests some schools struggle to provide healthy meals.

The “Make Menus Matter” campaign, which launched last November, asked parents to submit a copy of their child’s school menu in order to raise awareness about the quality of food being served to children and teenagers in the province.

Thirty-six menus representing all seven school districts came in, and while many had inspired menu items that meet Policy 711 requirements (such as a salmon filet with turnip, corn and broccoli), burgers and pizza still dominate many school menus.

badmenu

One menu received by the N.B. Medical Society as part of the “Make Menus Matter” campaign.

“We found really great menus that would impress even some restaurants, and then the in-between ones that are flirting with moderate nutrition food items,” says Vanessa MacLellan, RD, co-chair of Dietitians in Action. The latter include breaded chicken fingers or chicken nuggets; “moderate” items that can be served no more than twice a week, yet in some schools are available to children every day.

While Policy 711 dictates the healthiest menu items in schools be sold “as close to cost as practicable,” Make Menus Matter also found healthier menu items often cost more than unhealthy ones. “If a child comes to school with $3 for lunch, their options are sometimes very limited,” MacLellan says.

One of the challenges is the way food service is provided in New Brunswick schools. Generally, companies are contracted to provide food in cafeterias across the province, and Policy 711 states that these contracts must comply with the policy. The province’s school district superintendents — New Brunswick has seven, oversee more than 300 schools — are responsible for compliance.

While anecdotal evidence suggests some schools have struggled to to meet the expectations of Policy 711—providing good food while keeping costs down—others have found success by creating an entirely new way of providing food for students.

When the contract for the Centre communautaire Sainte-Anne’s food-service provider was up for renewal in 2012, members of the community jumped into action. The centre, in Fredericton, houses two schools: École Sainte-Anne (6-12) and École des Bâtisseurs (K-5), as well as a small café.

The policy states food-service providers are evaluated based on the nutritional quality of their menu, and 30 non-profit organizations banded together to create the non-profit group CÉ D’ICI. The group’s focus on fresh, local ingredients was a slam dunk and it won the centre’s food service contract.

“We’re in the business of making good food”

– Marc Allain, CÉ D’ICI

CÉ D’ICI sources much of its meat, fruit and vegetables from local producers and is dedicated to providing more nutritious options than typical cafeteria fare. Sample menu items include vegetable samosas with rice and salad; hummus and tabouli with pita; spaghetti squash with tomato sauce; and tuna casserole with spinach salad (the menu is available on the group’s website).

Large, for-profit companies have to satisfy shareholders and often cut costs by reducing the quality of their food, CÉ D’ICI manager Marc Allain says. Not so for CÉ D’ICI. ”We got rid of the profit margin by creating a non-profit organization with a social enterprise philosophy.”

“We’re in the business of making good food,” says Allain. “We do measure our success at the end of the year by our fiscal situation; if we weren’t sustainable, we wouldn’t exist. But we also measure our success by the quality of the food that’s on the plate.”

The non-profit groups that make up CÉ D’ICI share 75 per cent of its profits, while 20 per cent goes to a community fund and five per cent to employees. Since its launch, CÉ D’ICI has grown to serve two other schools: École des Arc-en-ciel and Gesner Street Elementary, both in Oromocto. At Gesner Street, CÉ D’ICI serves boxed lunches three times per week that fit Policy 711 guidelines and meet the group’s target for local and nutritious ingredients.

École St. Anne’s high school entrepreneurship is even leading the marketing effort for CÉ D’ICI inside the school.

“They’re seeing the impact and decision-making power they have in the business,” Allain says. “For kids, it connects with values that are very important at that age.”

Empowering students to lead the charge in promoting healthy eating is one way Summerhill Street Elementary School helped its students kick their sugar habit.

Policy 711 states that pop and sweetened drinks like iced tea, lemonade and sports drinks shouldn’t be sold or served in schools. Fruit beverages must be at least 98 per cent real fruit juice, with no added sugar or sweeteners.

Yet teachers at the Oromocto elementary school continued to see high-sugar drinks like Hi-C, Kool-Aid, Sunny D and chocolate milk in the school’s recycling bins. The students were clearly bringing the drinks from home, and teacher Cynthia Keizer wondered what could motivate the children to make more better decisions around beverages.

A presentation on sugar-sweetened beverages to a group of Grade 4-5 students led to “Re-Think Your Drink,” an initiative to educate kids on the sugar content of some of their favourite beverages. The entire school pitched in.

One teacher made a fun cartoon (see below), voiced by students, about the importance of choosing milk or water over pop. Kids checked teachers’ mugs to see if they held coffee or water.  Peer mentors launched a school-wide poster contest and gave presentations to K-2 students at a nearby school. Parent volunteers made a display showing different drink containers alongside a container showing their sugar content.

“The display was quite a shocker to them,” Keizer says. There were other surprises, too.

“They knew that water was a good drink, but not to what extent,” she says. “They weren’t aware of the difference in sugar content between chocolate and white milk, that there was sugar in juice, or the high salt content of sports drinks like Gatorade.”

By the end of the school year, the number of pop and juice containers in the school’s recycling bin had plummeted.  Kaizer says the initiative succeeded largely because it was student-led.

It’s these kinds of innovative programs and fresh thinking that are changing the game.

Mélissa Boudreau and Julie Santerre, Public Health Dietitians with the Vitalité Health Network, work with 18 schools in the northwest of New Brunswick. They visit each school in the middle of the academic year to review menus and discuss nutrition with the cafeteria’s cooks, all of who are local and from the community — not part of a corporate food-services contract.

While nearly all follow the policy, one comment was bothering them: some kids found the food unappetizing. Vegetables were mushy. Potatoes were boring. The pasta stuck together in lumps.

Boudreau and Santerre could review the fat, sodium, fibre and sugar content of the menu items, but making the food taste better wasn’t her area of expertise. “As dietitians, we can give tips to make the menu healthy, but we’re not chefs,” Boudreau says.

So, with the support of the school district, the dietitians invited the cooks to a workshop on making their healthy food more appealing to kids. The cooks were thrilled, she says. “Other employees get to attend continuing education seminars and where they can share with colleagues, but cafeteria workers never do.”

Hosted by a chef brought in by the district, cooks from 17 schools undertook a daylong crash course with new foods and tricks to make their menus fresh and appealing.

Organizers of a skills-training program for cooks in northwest New Brunswick (left to right): Chef Don Grondin, Martine Michaud, Noella Sawyer, Mélissa Boudreau and Julie Santerre.

Organizers of a skills-training program for cooks in northwest New Brunswick (left to right): Chef Don Grondin, Martine Michaud, Noella Sawyer, Mélissa Boudreau and Julie Santerre.

Want crisp vegetables? Undercook them, because they will continue to cook under the cafeteria’s warming lamps. Always taste your food before serving. Use a little bit of oil to prevent pasta from sticking together. Add different colours to make dishes more appealing. “We eat with our eyes, as well,” Boudreau says.

The chef also introduced some foods that many of the cooks hadn’t tasted before, like couscous and quinoa, the latter of which is a versatile, high-protein grain that’s packed with nutrients — perfect for healthy lunches.

“Not all of my schools will have quinoa on the menu, but we just wanted to open their minds to try something new and different,” Boudreau says.

If Policy 711 is to really make lasting change in the province, the key is collaboration.

Parents and teachers that wish to see changes in their school’s menu may want to contact Marc Allain at CÉ D’ICI, who hopes to grow his group’s partnerships in the coming years.

“We want to encourage others to do similar things,” he says. “Whoever wants to start something similar, or collaborate, or start something similar. Give us a call.  We’d be more than happy to share pretty much everything; the food, the menus, the recipes.

“Whatever we can do to help other similar projects, we’d be more than happy to do.”

Link: Watch HEPAC’s Policy 711 webinar online