Free hot lunches find fans at Rundle

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Robert Rundle kids are getting free hot lunches this fall thanks to a provincial grant, and teachers say it may be making them better students.

Premier Rachel Notley announced last April that the province would spend an additional $10 million this fall on school nutrition programs. The cash was a follow-up to a pilot project that gave students in 14 school divisions nutritious meals in an attempt to help them do better in school.

While the Greater St. Albert Catholic board used its chunk of this cash to offer healthy snacks at Legal, Notre Dame and G.H. Primeau schools, St. Albert Public chose to focus its roughly $140,000 grant on Robert Rundle Elementary.

The school has used the grant to offer free hot, nutritious meals to students four days a week since October, said principal John Osgood. Some 200 of the school’s 220 eligible kids have signed up for it, and they’ll be switching to five meals a week for November and December.

“It’s been quite well received,” he said.

Making those hot lunches is Kelley Perras of Kelley’s Deli and Bakery, which is based out of the St. Albert Royal Canadian Legion building.

“Everything’s made from scratch,” she said, and from fresh local ingredients where possible.

Perras said it typically takes about three hours to make the 200-some lunches, some of which can be cooked in a single giant pot.

Each meal is packaged at about 11:10 a.m. and delivered hot at 11:45 along with raw fruits or vegetables, Perras said. There’s a different dish every day, and a different menu every month.

“We try to give them good variety,” Perras said. She and her three assistants run their meal ideas past their grandkids.

So far, students have sampled goulash, perogies, taco salad, egg burritos, chicken stir-fry on rice, hand-made pizzas and cookies, and more.

Grade 6 student Audrey Pierce was smiling and chatting away with her classmates over grilled cheese and soup on Thursday.

“The food is really good,” she said, especially the goulash and the homemade cookies, and her parents like the convenience and savings.

“It’s kind of nice to have hot food, especially for the winter.”

Feeding young minds

The main goal of these meals is to encourage lifelong healthy eating habits in students, said public board associate superintendent Marianne Barrett. Alberta Education says Alberta teens typically eat restaurant food more than 250 times a year, and those foods are often heavy in fat and salt.

“When kids are not eating a well-balanced meal, I think that would have impacts on their ability to focus and fully engage and participate in school,” Barrett said.

Staffers at Robert Rundle are tracking student performance to see if these free meals affect behaviour, attendance, and grades, and are providing parents with information on nutrition, Barrett said.

Teacher Holly Wicharuk said that her students have had more energy in the afternoon and are able to get more done since starting the lunch program, especially those who usually had sugary lunches. The free meals were also a great help to students who sometimes didn’t have lunches.

“Every student has a lunch every day, which is huge,” she said.

“They’re not coming to school worried about what their meal is.”

Osgood said attendance appears to be up since the meals started, and students seem willing to try foods they wouldn’t normally eat at home.

Perras said it was nice knowing that these kids were getting a good meal each day, and thought that the students appreciated it. One girl came up to her Thursday to say she was enjoying the lunches, and a Grade 2 student had reportedly asked for her goulash recipe.

“I guess they’re liking it!” she said, laughing.

Osgood said he hoped to keep the lunch program going for the rest of the school year. Leftover lunches are being donated to the St. Albert Food Bank.

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Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.