There are over 56,000 students in the Vancouver School District. Every purchaser and practitioner knows it’s a tricky business trying to feed kids healthy, affordable and sustainable meals and snacks, day in and day out.

For children and youth need good food to support their growth and learn about the importance of a strong food system. The Vancouver Board of Education (VBE) is committed to being the most sustainable school district in North America.

Are there more opportunities to bring in local, healthy, and sustainable food?

From 2014 to early 2016, FarmFolk CityFolk, Farm to School Vancouver Area and the Vancouver Board of Education (VBE) engaged in a Learning Lab (LL) partnership, to explore opportunities and secure tangible results in increasing local, sustainable, healthy food purchasing for schools in the Vancouver district. The LL was focused on changing buying practices through large-scale contracted suppliers, such as Sysco, while also engaging and supporting schools to buy directly from local urban farms, such as Fresh Roots Urban Farm. It was the first in Canada and sought to influence institutional supply chains across Metro Vancouver and the rest of the country.

Our success of the project allowed us to secure funding from Vancity and the J.W. McConnell Foundation. The LL Coordinator worked to fulfill the four key goals identified by the purchasing and service staff of the VBE in our LL, which are:

  • Increasing the amount of healthy, local and sustainable food being purchased by the VBE
  • Ensuring foods meet the Guidelines for Food and Beverage Sales in BC Schools
  • Training staff to be comfortable purchasing, preparing and serving local foods
  • Building a market of enthusiastic local food eaters in students across Vancouver

To fulfill these goals, we took on specific actions, including: working with contracted major suppliers to identify opportunities for additional purchasing of local, healthy, sustainable food; marrying the needs of the VBE with existing local producers, with the research of UBC; hosting a community networking event to showcase Farm to School and local farmers; developing test kitchens with school staff to introduce seasonally aligned menus into secondary schools; integrating local, sustainable and healthy food into school curriculum; developing a Farm to School directory for both staff and parents to ease local food purchasing challenges; and creating a beautiful, engaging video about Farm to School Vancouver Area and the value of our work.

Farm to School Vancouver Area is a cluster of Farm to School BC enthusiasts and supporters who are working with key individuals throughout the VBE to change the way local and sustainable food is purchased for cafeterias and food programs across the district. The Learning Lab Program in Vancouver is based on a successful model implemented by School Food Focus in the US. It is designed to help schools adapt their procurement systems to increase the amount of local and sustainable food being served to students. Vancouver’s Learning Lab is the first of several that are happening across Canada, including UBC Farm, Haida Gwaii and Newfoundland/Labrador.

Learning Labs worked alongside existing local food programs currently occurring at the school level (e.g. school gardens) by helping the procurement staff to buy more local, sustainable food from their major distributors and suppliers. By working at the procurement level, the Learning Lab worked to create positive change in systemic purchasing. Real change happens from the top down and the bottom up!