According to a literature review commissioned by the Government of Canada, youth involved with food preparation generally make healthier food choices. Meanwhile, a 2016 study by Public Health Ontario concluded that food skills programs can significantly increase the amount of fruits and vegetables youth eat.
Chris Jess isn’t surprised by those findings. The culinary arts instructor helps run the “Food School” with fellow chef Nicole Debeyer at Centre Wellington District High School (CWDHS), a platinum-level eco-school in Fergus, Ontario. Each year, about 300 students—about a quarter of the school’s population—take at least one of the program’s courses, which cover farming, harvesting and preparing sustainably sourced meals. Each year, Jess sees how much his students grow in their food skills and confidence.
Established in 2011, the program is comprised of two main parts. The Food School kitchen offers a sequence of courses—one at each grade level, from 9 through 12—that fall within Ontario’s hospitality and tourism curriculum. Through those courses, students learn how to handle a knife, make their own soup stock, plan nutritious menus and other practical skills that promote healthy, affordable eating. “For me, it’s really about empowerment,” says Jess.
When it comes time for students to demonstrate what they’ve learned, Chef Jess doesn’t just consider how well they can cook from scratch. He also grades them on the number of scraps that end up in the compost bin. “At least a fifth of the mark is assigned to the amount of waste they generate,” says Jess.
Meanwhile, Jess also teams up with an environmental science teacher, Heather Cameron, to run the Food School farm in the spring semester. The program explores agriculture, horticulture, landscaping and forestry on a one-acre property near CWHDS surrounding a 19th century farmhouse. Upon completion, students receive two grade 11 credits: one in green industries and one in environmental science. They also develop a real appreciation for the value of food as they raise baby chicks, plant seeds in the gardens and tend to the greenhouse crops.
Community involvement plays a big role in the Food School as well. The program includes the student-run Café La Ruche, which prepares and serves sustainably sourced and low-waste meal options at the high school. Grade 12 students volunteer at a local food bank, where they run workshops for community members on how to prepare nutritious meals.
And each month, Jess and his students host community dinners for up to 250 guests across the socioeconomic spectrum—from the mayor to people struggling with food security on a daily basis. “It’s become my favourite event,” says Jess. “You’re removing stigma and offering all these opportunities for conversations and partnerships.”
The Food School at CWDHS is one of several examples of high school food programs underway in the area. As Our Food Future grows, we’ll build on their successes, leveraging the education system to equip our youth with lifelong skills that will promote healthy eating.