Guest blogger: Canadian PTA lunches

I am a parent of grade 3 and grade 5 children in a small city in Southwest Ontario.  At our school, there is no cafeteria, and children bring their own lunches from home.  Just like many other public schools, the parent council provides a lunch which is used as a fundraiser to help pay for extras. The school’s SAC – what you call the PTA in the US – serves lunches once a month to raise funds.  We use the money to buy playground equipment, additional library resources and other items not provided by the government.  When my oldest son started at the school 7 years ago, they always served hot dogs, pizza, chicken nuggets or similar processed food, accompanied by a packet of chips and a drink.  Children paid a week ahead of time, and it took the volunteers hours to tally the orders.  I think many parents all over the world will understand exactly what a drag that task is!  The rest of the time, every child brings a bagged lunch.  A fair number of children bring lunchables, koolaid jammers and the like.  Our school is probably typical of most Canadian schools with children from middle and low income families.

The school does have a small kitchen with a regular oven.  Over the years, together with the school’s other fundraising efforts, we have been able to add playground equipment, literacy materials, books and shelving for the library, and a whole host of other items that are typically not provided by government funding, and which help make the school special.  In the past seven years, I have seen the school grow from under 400 students to an anticipated 700 in the coming academic year.   This has caused us to rethink the way we organize our monthly lunches.  Let me explain:

I started volunteering 7 years ago when a hot lunch typically consisted of a hot dog, a packet of chips and a drink.  In a concession to changing nutritional demands, pop had recently been outlawed, but canned iced tea featured prominently until we replaced it with apple juice and flavoured water. 
Periodically pizza or a purchased hot meal like restaurant chicken would be offered instead.  The amount of discarded cardboard and plastic on these days would be phenomenal.  
A challenge that many schools face is volunteer levels, and ours was no exception.  Order forms would be sent out some 10 days before each lunch and a handful of parents would painstakingly tally the orders.  The first time I did this, it took me almost 3 days to balance the numbers and different combinations offered!
About 2 years ago things started to change fairly dramatically.  It didn’t seem like it at the time, but a confluence of factors caused us to turn the lunch institution on its head.  The school had grown by more than 50% and the number of regular volunteers had dropped.  We were spending an inordinate amount of time tallying orders.  Those of us who were still volunteering were disenchanted by the nutritional value of what was offered and we knew we could do better.  We started by eliminating juice and flavoured water from the menu, replacing this with milk and chocolate milk (more about this below).
We also split the school into two groups, serving the kindergarten students on a different day than the older students.  This year we added a third group, and we now serve hot lunches on three separate days a month.  This means the parents running the lunches come to school more frequently than before, but our catering has become largely stress free.  Most surprisingly, it’s all run by just 4 parents!
In a bold move that took some chutzpah, we did away with order forms altogether, distributing flyers to the students instead.   We purchased sufficient supplies to cover more than enough orders, and would go to the classrooms on the morning of the lunch to determine how many children would be ordering.
We also raised the price of the lunch to an all inclusive $5.  Students now bring their money, usually in the form of one bill, to the room where we serve lunch.  This makes the payment processing a piece of cake.
For most of the past academic year we have offered one of two entree options, both of which are very popular with our students:  macaroni and cheese that we make from scratch, or spaghetti with canned pasta sauce.  This would typically be accompanied by a fresh salad dressed with a ranch dressing we make with yoghurt and mayonnaise.  By buying the ingredients ahead when they are on sale, we have been able to achieve really good margins.  As one of our parents likes to say, “work smarter, not harder”.
This month we are offering subs.  This is a very easy meal to throw together.  We’ve been doing this long enough to know approximately how much to purchase.  All the produce is locally grown and the buns are multigrain, as are the oatmeal cookies.   Any extras are either frozen for future use or purchased back by parents and teachers so nothing is wasted.  We use plastic cups, disposable paper plates and real forks picked up for pennies at thrift stores.  It takes under an hour last week to prep the veggies and set up tables for the children in an empty classroom.   We slice open the buns and spread them with turkey breast or cheese, allowing the children to add their own toppings from three stations.
In the future, we would like to eliminate chocolate milk from the menu, and I have nothing good to say about North America’s penchant for bottled water. Not too long ago I had some donated milk which I distributed to several of the classrooms.  When I asked the children, “Who would like a glass of milk?” there was no shortage of takers.  I feel very strongly that most children will drink milk if it is offered to them.  We have put the drinks choices to the parents’ vote, pointing out that chocolate milk contains more sugar than the equivalent volume of pop, but it still won out. 
When I look at how far we have come, I realize the discussion over chocolate milk and bottled water is not worth getting too excited about right now.  We have been able to turn the school’s hot lunch system from a fast food administrative nightmare into a slick, high-margin fundraiser that delivers great quality nutrition at a reasonable price.  The school year is almost over, and I’m sure we will be able to successfully tackle the beverage choices in the new year!
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22 thoughts on “Guest blogger: Canadian PTA lunches

  1. Oh wow… my daughter starts school in September and I wish her school offered something like that! In fact.. I may very well suggest it to the Parents Council. I know that her school does monthly pizza days and my concern with it is that my daughter just isn't a big fan of pizza and pop! If they offered chicken or subs instead she'd be much more inclined to eat it. At least it's only once a month and not daily like some U.S. schools.

  2. Wow! I think this is awesome. I wish my Niece and Nephew's school would do this….I think I might suggest it to my sister! They attend a small private school and the food is catered by the hospital cafeteria in a neighboring town. Strangely enough the food is ATROCIOUS – think processed hamburgers, hotdogs, nachos, cheese sandwiches with no veggies or fruits. It's pretty bad.

    Anyways, the point of this comment was to say that I recently have realized how EASY it is to make meals from scratch for very little money per serving. My parents recently opened a small deli and at lunch each day my mom makes a "blue plate special" which costs her under $2 a plate and she sells for $5.50. Meals include a from-scratch entree such as pulled pork sandwiches, lasagna, chicken & noodles, enchiladas, taco salad, etc. plus two sides and dessert! The amount of food she serves would EASILY feed 2-3 children as she is serving mainly hungry farmers. It can be done, easily!

  3. You said that your school has middle and low income families. I am interested to know if there is any assistance provided to the low income families to provide breakfast and lunch to their children on a regular basis if the school doesn't not regularly serve lunch. We have so many students at my school who rely on those 2 meals to be sure that they eat every day. In fact, many schools have started summer lunch programs in order to help out over the summer break with meals for these families.

  4. Congratulations on turning around those fundraisers!! It is amazing what a few like minded mothers can accomplish isn't it.

    Parent organizations can raise lots of money for schools…unfortunately, with all the rules and regulations this would never work in the USA.
    In fact in my state, you probably couldn't cook that food yourselves because of allergy concerns. Even in the preschool I work in I can't serve a special snack a parent sends in unless it is store or bakery bought with a list of ingredients.

    What I also found interesting is that your school doesn't serve lunch every day. That all 700 kids bring their lunch. I find this so interesting. What a concept. What happens if a child forgets their lunch? I like that it makes the parents responsible for feeding their children. That way if they are eating junk it is the parents we can blame not the government.
    Do they have a recycling program?
    Do the kids all brown bag or do they bring an insulated bag to keep things cold?
    I really kind of like this idea. Of course they would totally take away federal money from the school.
    I hope someone who has more information on the rules and regs and federal money will comment on this one.

  5. In Canada it's the norm for public schools to not provide lunches for its students. What I didn't write in the piece above – didn't want to write a whole treatise!! – is that we do have a nutrition program, where we provide a small snack to students at morning recess. Funding comes from several grants, and we ask parents to contribute too, but it's not a requirement for participation. The snack program is open to all students and helps provide some nutrition to those who may have forgotten their lunch, or whose parents may not have fed them. A typical snack might be a tuna mayo sandwich and several cucumber slices. There's more info on our website:

    The school does have an active recycling program, and recently earned a gold award for its ongoing efforts. It's not perfect, but we've come a long way in the last few years.

    As for allergies, in a typical year, there might be about 10 students with food allergies. We know who they are and the severity of their allergies. We also try and work with those students' parents so we can offer foods that don't compromise their children's health or the choices of the other students.

    I think a big part of the success of our initiatives rests on the principal. In some schools, principals are hesitant to step outside their zone of comfort. Our principal is a no-nonsense commonsensical lady who isn't afraid to take on these challenges.

  6. I'm from Windsor too so I found this guest post really interesting!!

    I almost always packed my lunch in elementary school, but I also remember the hot dog days as a kid.

  7. To Viki:

    I went to a private k-8 school where every child brought their own lunch-also mainly middle to low income families; the school tuition was on a sliding scale to accommodate the lower income families.

    If a child forgot their lunch a plate was passed around the room – all the school ate together in a large circle – and anyone who had anything extra would contribute to their lunch. sometimes these were the best lunches to get! and the teachers hovered close by to make sure that what was donated was a healthy mix of foods-not just cookies =)

  8. It's so interesting to see how other countries approach school lunch.

    Philippa, your hard work, smart thinking, and persistence have paid off! Your success gives encouragement to others facing similar struggles. You've shown us the importance of choosing your battles wisely so that the most important and significant changes are made first. I bet you'll eventually win the chocolate milk and bottled water battles, too.

    Many thanks for sharing your story.

  9. In doing research for our school's recycling efforts, I've found that Canada is way ahead of the USA in terms of recycling in its schools.

  10. Just a comment about chocolate milk.

    I can't stand the taste of regular milk, never have. When I was in elementary school the lunches came with either chocolate or regular milk. On those days they ran out of chocolate I didn't drink milk. It's possible that I'm the only person like this, but I doubt it.

    Chocolate milk may contain more sugar than soda, but it also contains more calcium, protein, and vitamins as well. Chocolate milk shouldn't be viewed as a high-calorie alternative to regular milk but as a means to get people who normally wouldn't drink milk to do so.

  11. Great post!

    I'm also Canadian (Alberta) and have been following Mrs. Q's blog all year, even though the school lunch programs has nothing to do with me or my kids.

    Our school has a monthly 'special lunch' fundraiser as well. They offer pizza and a bag of chips. I'm not complaining about these choices (it is a once per month treat and I'm pretty strict with what the kids take the rest of the month), but I am so impressed with what the guest blogger has accomplished at her school. KUDOS!!

    Viki commented how foreign it seems that 700 kids would bring lunches. When I was growing up and came across – in US-based books and tv – cafeterias and lunch ladies and all that's entailed in 'served school lunches', I was sure it was just an accepted storytelling convention – you know, stuff can happen between characters if everyone stays at school vs going home for lunch. It was hard for me to imagine a world where every school had a cafeteria and lunch staff! 🙂

    In response to some questions (as best as I can answer based on my knowledge), in Calgary, there are programs by groups like the Salvation Army that provide breakfasts and hot lunches to some schools (depending on the school's income demographics)

    As for the brown bagging question: all the students come in each morning and place their lunch on a lunch cart. I've never seen a brown bag on the lunch cart. Everyone seems to have insulated reusable bags.

    The school also encourages litter-free lunches. During Earth Week, the teachers gave prizes to students who brought lunches that generated no garbage. (It just happens that the way I pack lunches, they don't have garbage, so my daughter was pleased that all my hang-ups about lunches made from scratch and packaged in reusable containers actually paid off for her!)

    If a child forgets lunch, the school has on hand what's needed to quickly make a sandwich.

    Thanks Mrs. Q. for your blog and raising awareness. I know the issue doesn't touch me directly, but better attitudes about healthy food in the US will surely trickle north, so I've found your cafeteria adventure really worth following!

  12. Believe me I'm not critical of the "Canadian" way of doing School Lunch. In fact I like it! I like it a Lot!

    My kids have always taken their lunch to school. Neither have ever bought a school lunch. One is out of school and married and the other is 16.

    The way I see it is that it puts nutrition and the consequences of it right where it belongs, with the parents.

    Personally I don't think the Gov't is doing a good job with school lunches or breakfasts. Most of us that read this blog don't think so either.
    I like the idea of parents taking responsibility and parenting.

    The problem is here in the USA we have a HUGE number of children who qualify for the breakfast and lunch program at either a reduced price or free.
    My ah ha moment today from this post and another comment on another blog (The Lunch Tray July 8) was if the schools in America could implement a bring your own healthy lunch and the lunch and breakfast program be used for those who truely need those meals. The extra money could be used for REAL FOOD for those in need not the processed stuff that is regularly fed to the children now.
    Yeah I know, pipe dreams.
    And Of course whole groups of people would say no fair, why do I have to fix my kid a lunch…

    I love the litter free lunch ideas, I use reuseables for our lunches all the time. Next term I'm trying out Snack Taxi's and trying my hand at making my own. I use a bento box sometimes and other various containers.

    Great post!, great comments!

  13. Mrs.Q…just a practical request here..can you please stop posting guest bloggers in such TINY writing?? it almost discourages me from reading them- and yet their posts are always so interesting! but the tiny writing i find difficult..if you want to contrast with your own posts, maybe change the font color or style, instead of the size?? thanks.

  14. @Krisfromparis!

    If you have problems reading the small print, try pressing CTL and SHIFT and +. It should enlarge the text, and you can do it till its large enough for you to read. I do it on these teeny elf writing posts all the time 🙂

  15. @ Viki ….

    Oh no! I didn't think you were critical. You asked great questions that work through the logistics and pitfalls of 'bring your own lunch.'

    I've learned a lot from this blog about US school lunches logistics and I was happy to add to the conversation about school lunch logistics from this side of the border.

    I'm sorry if my post came off wrong!

    (And I agree with the comments you added in your 7:23 post. Sometimes the most worthwhile goals are those which initially sound like pipe dreams!)

    – the 'Anonymous from 5:38'

  16. The chocolate in chocolate milk interferes with the body's ability to absorb the calcium so I wouldn't use that as an argument for chocolate milk being not so bad (I don't think it's nearly as bad as soda, if sweetened with real sugar, but it doesn't contain the same nutritional benefits as plain milk, plus sugar). Chocolate milk is fine to drink, but don't be depending on it for calcium – eat other calcium rich foods as well.

    I have a severe vitamin D deficiency and my doctor has warned me away from chocolate and chocolate milk. I drink vitamin D fortified 2% and cook with whole milk.

  17. Sorry that was hard to read font-wise. I made it small because it was so long. I think this may have been the longest guest post I have every had. I'll try to make it more readable in the future. Thanks for letting me know!

  18. Anonymous from July 16 — If you have a severe calcium deficiency, it is definitely not JUST from the fact you might have liked to drink chocolate milk or have chocolate occasionally and it is not likely to cure it just by cutting these things out. You should be on vitamin supplements. I am in your shoes with Vitamin D deficiency (problem that occurred by taking medication for seizures) and I've been on supplements since I was 17…I turned 24 this year.

  19. Dawn, I wasn't clear – I know very well just cutting out chocolate and adding vitamin D fortified milk won't work for me! I was responding to the poster who believed chocolate milk should be allowed because at least it's getting calcium into the kids. You need to get your calcium from many sources…parents shouldn't depend on the chocolate milk. I was never one for chocolate milk myself.

    I do take pure vitamin D supplements (as well as calcium and magnesium) and feel a huge difference on them. They're not sure what caused my deficiency, but they said it was severe enough that diet and sun exposure (or lack thereof) had nothing to do with it, and it must be medications or genetics. I was only diagnosed last year, but have had symptoms for awhile. Good luck to you!

  20. I'm also from Windsor and was excited to read this guest blog post! Go McCalum school! 🙂

  21. I wouldn't use that as an argument for chocolate milk being not so bad (I don't think it's nearly as bad as soda, if sweetened with real sugar, but it doesn't contain the same nutritional benefits as plain milk, plus sugar). Chocolate milk is fine to drink, but don't be depending on it for calcium, thanx.

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