Healthy eating is an important part of healthy living and learning. Most of us know this but it’s hard to do – especially when surrounded by a culture of fast, cheap food. How can healthy foods become the easy, attractive choice? Can youth show us the way? High school students, teachers, and public health dietitians from Kingston, Hamilton, Niagara, Markham and Sault Ste. Marie recently participated in a two day workshop hosted by the Ontario Society of Nutrition Professionals in Public Health (OSNPPH) to explore solutions to increase levels of healthy eating. I participated in the workshop to explore possible collaboration with the MaRS Solutions Lab to create an ongoing process of youth engagement, learning and action to design, test and scale ideas that will result in a measurable increase in healthy eating by youth in Ontario schools.

Nathan and Emily from the Youth Advocacy Training Institute (YATI) led the first day with some fun interactive activities discussing health promotion concepts and exploring what students thought were big health issues for youth. Some of the issues deliberated on were: media/social media, deceptive food marketing, eating habits, self-image, mental health, substance abuse, physical activity, stress and lack of sleep.

Over a delicious lunch, we heard from Tyler Johnson who discussed the MyFoodMyWay campaign in Toronto that engaged students through social media, online surveys and focus groups. MyFoodMyWay partnered with the Stick It To Fast Food campaign, brought together student ambassadors, developed interactive online advertising, and worked with George Brown College on new recipes for school cafeterias. YATI discussed other examples of interesting campaigns such as Weighty Matters, Savvy Diner, The Fun Theory, Know What’s In Your Mouth, Quit the Denial and Food Fit Philly HYPE.

With YATI’s guidance, each high school group worked through the steps with their ideas for creating a social campaign promoting a healthy food culture.

Brainstorming ways to make cafeteria food healthier and ideas for creating a social media campaign
Brainstorming ways to make cafeteria food healthier and ideas for creating a social media campaign

Steps for Creating a Social Media Campaign:

  • All schools focused on making healthier foods more attractive in their school.
  • Students, teachers, and food service providers were chosen as the target audience.
  • School cafeterias
  • Sault Ste. Marie felt the opening of their new school building next fall would give them a “Fresh Start” for an engaging students in healthier eating. Niagara students chose: “Swap Out: an apple is always better!” while Kingston students like the “F bomb: Fun, fuel & friends!”
  • Student’s thought of distributing their messaging through the school’s Twitter, Facebook, daily announcements, posters, and events in the cafeteria. What about offering a salad bar discount for students who can show a specific hashtag?
  • Photovoice, metrics (e.g. student participation), historical timeline mapping, and impact drawings were all discussed as tools.

The evening was a delectable experience in participatory research. The group helped prepare an Indian feast in Arvinda’s cooking class.   We had a crash course in spices that made our diverse vegetarian menu especially delightful. We learned how to make a range of Indian dishes, such as, vegetarian samosas with tamarind date chutney, red lentil and carrot curry soup, butter paneer with vegetables, basmati rice pulao, and chai stewed apples. Some of us bought Arvinda’s spices so we can try a few of the recipes at home.

Participants cooking a healthy meal with Arvinda’s cooking class.
Participants cooking a healthy meal with Arvinda’s cooking class.

On day two, Sophie Rosa from Public Health Ontario coached the high school groups through steps to develop a social engagement strategy for changing the food culture in their schools. As part of getting organized and assessing the situation, students looked at factors that strengthened or worsened the food culture for an individual, their school and social networks. For instance, at their schools, lack of healthy, affordable choices and inadequate time make things worse, and caring teachers, cooking classes and attractive cafeterias make things better. Afterwards, students segmented their market (e.g. athletes, academics, gamers) and created SMART goals and objectives. Good objectives are SMART – specific, measurable, appropriate, realistic with timeline. For example, a SMART objective is to have 50% of students who use the cafeteria buying salads by December 2015.

Next, Sophie led the group in brainstorming things that could be done to make the school cafeteria more attractive like posters, music, and healthy lunch demos. To encourage packing your own lunch, schools could create competitions, do cost analysis to show benefits or provide a refrigerator and microwave. The healthy cafeteria redesign from the Cornell Food and Brand Lab showing how placement of healthy foods, use of trays and smaller plates, and a “speedy healthy express” line to increase healthy food purchases also inspired new opportunities for schools to explore. Lastly, the importance of evaluating the progress and impact was highlighted.

The participating high school teams now have action plans to start campaigning for changes in their school cafeterias. Several students volunteered to work with the OSNPPH to create a network of youth interested in building a healthy food culture in schools to share ideas, experiences and progress. MaRS Solutions Lab looks forward to exploring how we can help support this initiative and collaborate on making healthy eating the easy choice in schools.

OSNPPH is now participating in the MaRS FEED (Food Education Entrepreneurship Discovery) Adventure, an innovation incubator for high school teams from the Toronto District School Board to explore the challenge of unhealthy eating and create solutions to make healthy eating the easy choice in their school.