School lunch program helps feed young bodies and minds

KINGSVILLE — Food for thought is something Dennis Rogers fully endorses.

His Green Heart Kitchen in Kingsville operates the Green Heart Lunch Club, which provides healthy, nutritious meals to elementary and nursery schools in Windsor and Essex County.

The core belief behind the program is simple: if children are hungry, if their minds are distracted by an ache in the pit of their stomachs, their ability to concentrate and learn is compromised.

Green Heart, prior to COVID-19, provided as many as 2,500 meals daily to elementary and nursery school students throughout Windsor and Essex County.

Now the number of meals provided is closer to 500, but that figure is expected to rise now that new approvals from the two school boards have been issued.

The lunch program has many facets. There is the program that allows parents to pre-purchase meals for up to three months — at $6.50 per lunch. Then there is Feed it Forward, which allows those same parents to pay for meals for students other than their own children.

Businesses like Jeff Smith County Chevrolet and the Neighbourhood Charitable Alliance also purchase large blocks of lunches for children at risk.

“That’s where we really rely on the school administration team, the principals, the vice-principals, the teachers who know which students are in need,” said Rogers.

He said even elementary schools in affluent parts of Windsor and Essex County have students arriving at school hungry.

“One principal (from South Windsor) was telling me he could easily do 40 lunches a day for kids that struggle.”

Green Heart and the United Way, in partnership with the public and Catholic school boards, recently launched the United Way Lunch Pilot Program — which will provide 1,000 lunches a week to a total of 10 schools for eight weeks.

Marisa Wismer, principal at St. John de Brebeuf elementary school in Kingsville, said a hungry student cannot give their full attention to their lessons.

“When they know a lunch is going to be provided to them … is waiting for them, that definitely has a positive impact on their experience here at school but also, more specifically, in the classroom,” she said.

St. John de Brebeuf also provides two or three snacks a week through the Ontario Student Nutrition Program.

When they can see a Green Heart lunch that has a protein, that has a vegetable, that has some sort of healthy fruit … it definitely reinforces the curriculum … about what makes a healthy lunch.

Wismer said healthy eating is taught at the school as part of the general curriculum. The meals provided by Green Heart are a helpful reference point, she said.

“When they can see a Green Heart lunch that has a protein, that has a vegetable, that has some sort of healthy fruit … it definitely reinforces the curriculum … about what makes a healthy lunch.”

Rogers worked as a manager at two Outback Steakhouses in Cleveland and the Twisted Rooster in Chesterfield, Mich., before joining his sister, Laila Crosby, a holistic nutritionist, at Green Heart Catering in Kingsville.

“So, we did some research and we found a healthy lunch program was something we wanted to do,” said Rogers, who now runs the business with his wife Haley.

The first school on board was Kingsville Public School, then a local nursery school, then Bellewood Public School in Windsor.

“Now we’re at 30 schools and daycares,” said Rogers.

All the meals are prepared at the Main Street West location, packaged in insulated bags, wrapped in quilts made by Rogers’ mom, Kim Grant, then delivered to various locations in the city and county.

From oven to a hot meal on a student’s desk takes about an hour.

All the packaging is biodegradable or recyclable. The knives, forks and spoons are made from potato starch.

“The last thing we want to do is go to the school with all these great-looking healthy delicious lunches and then you’ve got a mountain of garbage,” Rogers said.

Green Heart has 12 employees, evenly split between part- and full-time.The Main Street business does more than provide meals for kids, it also provides in-store takeaway meals, Meals on Wheels delivery, fresh bread, biodegradable laundry and dishwater detergent, body wash soap and shampoos, as well as catering services for small gatherings and weddings.

Prior to COVID-19, Green Heart also held summer camps for kids to encourage healthy eating and proper meal preparation.

Green Heart Kitchen offers a protein, veggies and fruit in its boxed school lunches.

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