Update from Vancouver School Board Learning Lab

Hello to all our friends and colleagues across the country!

Over the holidays, when food played such a central role in each and every day, I kept thinking about the fact that food connects us all—or rather, food has the potential to connect us all. We eat, we grow and prepare food for ourselves and others, and at every meal, we have the opportunity to recognize the fundamental value of the food we eat and the people who sit at our table with us. During my time with friends and family, I was lucky to be able to take that time to acknowledge how important food is in my life. It gave me renewed hope to take on the big job of helping the Vancouver School Board (VSB) connect with the food they purchase and serve!

As you all know, large-scale food systems involve so many aggregation points, storage facilities, and distribution services that it’s difficult to understand where our food comes from. Further to that, the value of food within our places of learning is often isolated to its figures on a budget line—with no recognition of its ability to connect, heal and sustain. As a result, there seems to be more and more examples of the way food disconnects us—from each other, from the land, and from our communities. We see this all the time and combatting it is a big part of the basic principle of the Learning Lab: get everyone together to share their ideas and set to work on goals that can help address particular issues with procurement.

Testing the Test Kitchen

The idea of a test kitchen came to us during a Learning Lab session from one of the culinary instructors at a high school in the VSB. She wondered: why not bring all the cooks, buyers and teachers involved with food service together to help them work through some of the challenges they have in sourcing, preparing and serving local food? Why not have them test out some recipes that use local food and fit the budget and nutritional requirements of school food? And why not, we added, have this session at Sysco to help their major broad-line supplier understand the problems and opportunities in place in high school cafeterias? So, after rallying the support of five of the eight schools with high school teaching cafeterias and three chefs, two marketing associates and the director of sales at Sysco, and Fresh Roots, the urban farm based on Vancouver School Board grounds, we held our first test kitchen at the end of October 2014. 

The test kitchen acted like a microcosm of the Learning Lab itself. Everyone in the room had a stake in the school food purchasing system, whether as a grower, buyer, preparer or vendor of food. The morning was spent allowing participants to discuss and deliberate on key challenges: no labelling of food origin on Sysco’s order sheets; no breakdown of nutritional content; and reluctance from staff and students to prepare/buy something new. These challenges are by no means limited to the Vancouver School Board; chances are, everyone in our learning group is facing them in one way or another. Over the course of the morning’s discussion, we didn’t solve all of the problems that came up, but we were able to use the real, on the ground, issues of both staff and vendor to construct a game plan for our work in 2015. More than anything, this session gave the school staff a chance to establish a more honest relationship with their vendors, which had previously been lacking. And what better way to deepen that relationship further than to get our hands dirty? The second part of the morning was dedicated to testing out 12 recipes that were designed by Sysco’s Red Seal Chef. Six entrees and six sandwiches all costed appropriately and based around food that is available from Sysco’s current listed BC farms and from Fresh Roots! And the best part…we got to eat everything for lunch.

Test kitchen participants wanted further support to offer local, healthy foods for students. An Action Schools! BC Guidelines for Food & Beverage Sales in BC Schools workshop was offered at the end of November in partnership with Vancouver Coastal Health and Fresh Roots Urban Farm for 26 participants from nine different VSB schools. Teachers enjoyed visiting the Fresh Roots Urban farm located in front of the secondary school at the end of the workshop to learn how they can purchase food from the farm that involves students in the growing, harvesting, preparing and marketing of farm produce. 

What’s Next?

All of the cafeterias that participated in our test kitchen have agreed to add at least one (if not all) of the recipes we tested to their menu in 2015. As well, they were eager to have us on-site when these items are introduced to help launch a campaign to sell them and track the resulting purchases. Sysco’s Red Seal Chef also agreed to attend the unveiling of these menu items and help us out with a student survey to find out what they liked about what was served—and how we might make it better.

We will be working closely with Fresh Roots to present a series of recommendations to the procurement team in early 2015 that will highlight further opportunities to procure local food. These recommendations will form the basis of our next Learning Lab as we move forward with guiding the VSB into putting procurement goals into action. We will be partnering with Farm to School BC to develop a Farm to School catalogue to connect VSB’s schools with local farms. As well, we hope to host a second test kitchen with cafeterias that were unable to make it to the first round to ensure our recipes get shared widely.

We are continuing to work with our partner Farm to Cafeteria Canada’s Learning Lab in Haida Gwaii to conduct and develop a comprehensive evaluation package and put together a digital storybook that will tell the tale of what a Learning Lab is and how to implement it in other institutional settings. As well, we are thrilled that our colleagues at the University of British Columbia (UBC) Farm have confirmed funding for a learning lab of their own with UBC Hospital and will be partnering with us to delve into some lessons learned. 

All in all, 2015 looks exciting. I wish you all nothing but the best in your work and your lives!



Thanks for this great blog post and looking forward to hearing how the trial of the new recipes works out! 

You metionned in our last call that you were interested in any procurement projects that had a product focus. There are two that might be of interest:

- The Big Six Purchasing Strategy - focused on sourcing apples, cucumbers, mushrooms, cooking onions, red peppers, and carrots for the Durham District School Board from Ontario farms. Its a project funded by Greenbelt and a partnership between Chartwell's and EcoSource as part of a Cafeteria Connects project. It appears to be in progress but I could assist in following up to get more information and potentially set-up a call with them?

Press release:


News article:


Also, there is the very exciting work happening amongst a coalition of US school districts (serving close to 3 million school meals a day) that are pledging to purchase chicken raised without antibiotics which I've posted on the FSC website too but here is a link:



cheers, Jennifer