Local partnership provides fresh produce to students in northern communities
Reeti Meenakshi Rohilla - Staff Writer
Students of 11 schools across six First Nations, Sioux Lookout and Lac Seul have been receiving fresh fruits and vegetables as part of a nutrition program, once a week. This program runs from September through June, by the Ontario Fruit & Vegetable Growers’ Association (OFVGA), in partnership with Fresh Market Foods, North Star Air, Wasaya Air, and Perimeter Aviation.
Fresh produce is flown and delivered to students, or their families, depending upon the COVID regulations for a school at any time. Fresh Market Foods has been working on this program with OFVGA for a few years now, shared Fresh Market Foods’ Human Resources Manager Liz Ward.
Ward said, “What happens is every year we get a list from the Ontario Growers’ Association of the fresh fruits and vegetables that are fleeted for each week and the quantity we need towards going.” She added that for their past program year, “in total it was about just under 15000 students that would have all received free fruits and vegetables once a week through the program.”
The program serves schools in Slate Falls First Nation, Nibinamik First Nation (Summer Beaver), Eabametoong First Nation (Fort Hope), Kingfisher Lake First Nation, North Spirit Lake First Nation, Muskrat Dam First Nation, Frenchman’s Head, Kejick Bay, and Whitefish Bay, as well as Sioux North High School and Sioux Mountain Public School in Sioux Lookout.
Ward said that they always look forward to participating in this program and hope the kids benefit from it. She said, “I think it’s a great program to be able to send different fresh foods and vegetables up into the schools.” Ward added, “I hope it’s fun for the kids.”
Slate Falls First Nation is one of the communities that receives free fruits and vegetables for students through this program. The Education Director for the First Nation, Misty Crane said that their community doesn’t have access to a store with many fruits and vegetables, and that the kids at their school enjoy this nutrition program. “I think it’s good. It introduces vegetables and fruits to the students. I think it is a good opportunity for the school to have, and now that the school is out, we just hand them out to the community,” she said, adding, “We don’t have access to many fruits and vegetables. But when they send the fruits and vegetables, the kids enjoy them. They now come in their own singular cups this time, instead of the big trays they used to send.”
Ward said that the program was always geared towards the schools. She shared that pre-COVID where they could send the produce in a bulk in big trays, has now been replaced with the need to individually package the foods in cups, which is more labor intensive. Ward said, “At times, including this year, the Ontario Grower’s Association would have us prepare hampers that would then go back to the children’s families, into the communities so that they could also get fresh fruits and vegetables.”
Ward said that they work closely with OFVGA to prepare and pack the fresh produce to be flown into, and delivered to the students. “Sometimes Ontario Grower’s Association, they decide on the fruits and vegetables, but if we ever get short on a particular one here, we are able to substitute at the same time, or some communities have allergy sensitivities, so we are able to substitute it to make sure we are not bringing that allergy into the schools as well,” she said.
North Star Air’s Director of Marketing and Community Relations, Karen Matson shared that “Understanding and realizing the needs and the urgency of transporting perishable goods to the North in a timely manner,” and being equipped to provide cost-effective cargo transport, their organization continues to partner on this nutrition program for the students.
“Right now with the summer here, of course the program is lying down for right now. But we are looking forward to the fall to have it up and running again…and that we can still continue to be a part of this program and continue forward with it again,” Ward concluded.