Gardens and green lunches shine a light on two rural schools

Two rural schools nominated for a Food Matters Manitoba’s Golden Carrot Award 
help kids learn about food, while keeping things fun and delicious

There is a new food fad catching on among young students in the community of Pinawa.


“I never would have guessed it, but yes, chives — they love chives, every time I turn around out there they’re munching away,” said Darcia Light, principal of F.W. Gilbert Elementary, where an innovative garden program has earned a Golden Carrot nomination.

For the last four years students have planned themed vegetable gardens — this season paid homage to storybooks. The students plant, care for and harvest the gardens with guidance from staff and experts.

“It was the coming together of a few minds that felt that having a school garden would be a good idea, and people in the community were willing to build it,” said educator Jackie Sturton, who spearheaded the project along with Kristen Ticknor, a dietitian with the local health authority.

However, F.W. Gilbert is far from the only school to embrace gardening. Food Matters Manitoba, which founded the Golden Carrot Awards, distributed gardening kits to 89 schools last spring as a resource for teachers and parents trying to engage kids in food production while teaching them about healthy choices.

Debbie Versluis for one, has found that if you lead kids to vegetables, you can get them to eat.

The canteen operator at Gillis School in Tyndall has also been nominated for a Golden Carrot Award for her leadership in establishing a salad bar as part of the school’s canteen.

Each Tuesday, students at the school can choose from more than a dozen healthy salad ingredients, representing all four food groups.

“I probably put out four different vegetables and two or three different fruits, and then some kind of protein source, whether it’s pulses or legumes, or sometimes I’ll roast a chicken,” Versluis said. “It depends what the salad bar looks like it will need, maybe it’s hard-boiled eggs, or something else, and then there is always something along the lines of a dairy product… and always grains as well of course.”

She sources as many of the ingredients from local suppliers as possible. Last year, the school established a garden as well, so that students can grow some of the food they eat.

On average, Versluis said 40 students at the school of 240 opt into the salad bar lunch each week.

“It’s a pretty good percentage,” she said.

While flattered that her project is one of two rural education initiatives being recognized with a Golden Carrot nomination, the canteen operator says it is part of a larger movement in many areas in Canada and the U.S. to include healthy meals in the school day.

“I think what we put in their bodies is equally as important as what we put in their minds, because one supports the other,” she said.

Sturton agrees that getting kids to develop healthy eating habits young is important, as is teaching them about food production.

“Before this, many of them really had no concept of what happens from seed to fruit, so they just get so excited when they actually harvest the vegetables,” she said. Produce from F.W. Gilbert’s garden is also used to help support congregate lunches in Pinawa, a fall supper at the school, daycare snacks and the local food bank.

And in addition to the weekly garden club meeting, the garden has also been tied into various curriculum.

Of course all new programs have challenges. Both nominated programs were assisted by grants from various provincial programs.

And gardening in Pinawa brought its own hurdles.

“Being in Pinawa, we just couldn’t lay out a garden because of the deer and the bears; we had to have a fenced area,” said Light, adding weeds were also a problem prior to the introduction of mulch.

Versluis thinks the garden at Gillis School will also continue to grow and develop. An avid gardener herself, and a mother of two, she is always searching for healthy and delicious food options for her pint-size diners.

“It’s interesting and sometimes shocking what they will try, we have some kids that are very willing to try things like kale, or quinoa and zucchini,” she said. “But it’s a win-win situation because everything is healthy.”

The Golden Carrot Award winners will be announced on October 16 in Winnipeg.

About the author


Shannon VanRaes is journalist and photojournalist at the Manitoba Co-operator. She also writes a weekly urban affairs column for Metro Winnipeg, and has previously reported for the Winnipeg Sun, Outwords Magazine and the Portage Daily Graphic.


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