The Four R’s: Retooling Schools as Community Hubs

Things looking a bit different?
Nope, you're not on the wrong site – we're updating our look and content! Keep your eyes peeled for more changes!

Author: Sasha McNicoll

Posted: December 14, 2010

Categories: Edible Education Network / Food in the News / Good Food Ideas for Kids

By Wayne Roberts

By sheer luck, I got a quick taste of the linked future of food and schooling last week.

At the last minute, I was invited to fill an empty seat on a charter plane and come see a meal program in a First Nations Cree community of a thousand people in Fort Albany, near where the Albany River empties into James Bay. Hudson’s Bay is a long way up north to go for lunch, but I jumped at the chance.

This is a showpiece, says my host, Elisa Levi, consultant to the children’s charity ONEXONE, which has funded meal programs in 13 First Nations schools across Canada over the last three years.

We land on a gravel runway around noon, and are taken directly to the school, which is shown to us by Ed Metatawabin, the band’s historian and leading figure in a 30-year struggle to build a school controlled by and respectful of the community. Like most Aboriginal people over middle age, Metatawabin was compelled to go to a residential school where First Nations languages, spirituality, foods, family links and lifestyles were forcibly suppressed. Many of his memories are revealed in his novel, Hanoway. This new school building opened in 2001 is the antidote to those memories, an expression of, not suppression of, community needs and values.

At the entrance is a large circular sculpture garden featuring a sacred fire and dreamcatcher. Our eyes are directed to the main door and roof, shaped like the head and wings of a goose. Goose is one of the favorite staple foods of a community that once relied on seal, caribou, duck and fish as well as goose, each plentiful along the Albany River in their own season. Many people link their identity and heritage to their favorite foods, so the goose sculpture atop the school is a symbolic way of shouting from the rooftop that the Fort Albany band has reclaimed its heritage and identity.

Almost every detail of the school says it belongs to the community. Paintings along the walls feature seven traditional Cree virtues coming from “grandfather’s teaching” – respect, honesty, bravery, courage, truth, love, humility. There is a Cree room where the traditional language is taught. There is an elder’s room, where troubled children or teachers can seek advice from a community elder or simply peace and quiet. Elementary, high school and some community college courses are offered within the same building, so siblings are never far from one another. Community space is set aside on the second floor.

Fort Albany may be far away from roads and stores, but it is not isolated. All classes have computers. Youth clothing is indistinguishable from clothing down south. Baseball hats worn backward are de rigueur for males.

Similar global fashion trends affect youthful food preferences, which are far from traditional. Almost 90 per cent of food eaten in First Nations communities across Canada is store-bought, says Joan Metatawabin, lead volunteer responsible for both the breakfast and afternoon snack program and the brand new greenhouse just outside the school. The youth want to eat the same foods as other youth eat, she says.

Whole grain cereals, yoghurt and fruit juice are standard fare – conventionally nutritious, reflective of student preferences, but not traditional. Andrew Soloman, the band chief, praises the meal program with words that might come from concerned parents anywhere. “It’s great to have this in our community,” he says. “When children have an empty stomach, they can’t concentrate on anything.”

Occasionally there is bannock or Scotch broth featuring moosemeat instead of beef, dishes reflecting — much like the last names of most people in the community, and the dancing jigs favored at community celebrations – intermarriage among Cree and Scotch parents, common in the days when Fort Albany was an outpost of the Hudson’s Bay Company fur-trading empire after the 1640s.

This is fusion food, northern-style.

Four days later, at a packed September 24 conference on school hubs hosted by the Social Planning Council in downtown Toronto, I realized how far this Fort Albany program looked to the future as well as the past.

The basic idea of the hub is that the school is a prime public space and resource that should serve a variety of community education needs, not be monopolized by one schooling purpose – especially at a time when school enrollment is low due to declining birthrates and when low-cost gyms, meeting rooms, nursery-age facilities, childcare centres, gardening space and continuing education opportunities are hard to find. Why shut down public-financed buildings and grounds on evenings, weekends and summers just because school teachers have time off? Why make schooling an out-of-body experience that denies the role of food in student well-being and performance?

When integration between school and community happens, food is sure to come to the fore, down south as much as up north.

Juxtaposing the experience of Fort Albany and a Toronto conference room jarred me into realizing that food and education have a political problem in common. The problem accounts for both education and food, each in its own way an ongoing and all-encompassing necessity of personal, social and economic life, getting short shrift when it comes to sparking serious debate at election time or getting serious attention from governments. Case in point: the deep-going problems and far-sighted possibilities of both are off topic in almost all municipal or school board election campaigns raging across Ontario.

The common problem: both food and education are kept under lock and key behind the walls of specific government departments – ministries or departments of either agriculture or education — that use their control of one aspect of food (farming) or education (elementary and high schools) to control all subjects that speak to every aspect and phase of food and educational topics.

Cracks in each set of walls have been clear to community leaders active in either food or education fields for some time. But more recently, some have sensed the possibility of both education and food being brought together in a common hub. Hub – the very word defies the linear thinking and walled-off jurisdictions that make both sets of government institutions obsolete.

Despite their absence in platforms of elections taking place across Ontario this fall, the reinvention, convergence and bundling up of assets and possibilities just below the surface of both food and schools are sure to become a theme of the future.

(adapted from NOW Magazine, Sept 30-Oct 6, 2010; Wayne Roberts is the author of The No-Nonsense Guide to World Food)