Archived — Good Food for Junk: How to Launch and Maintain a Fruit Exchange

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The fruit exchange program Fort McKay School began with a casual remark. A visiting dietician said, "It's too bad they can't exchange all this junk food for fruit." Casey Brown turned that inspiration into a reality.

Every week, she buys between $100 and $150 worth of fruit and, sometimes, vegetables. At the school's three staggered lunch times, students can exchange junk food from their lunches for the fresh items.

The program was funded in the early days with some ministry of education money that was earmarked for healthy eating. After she proved the program could work, Brown was able to approach local companies and found one willing to sponsor the program.

"It's a lot of work; I won't lie to anyone about that," she says. She is able to do all of it herself, however, because Fort McKay School has only 85 students. A larger school would require a team of very dedicated people, possibly including parent volunteers.

She buys the food weekly, choosing mostly what is in season and, therefore, a better buy. (Occasionally, she buys more expensive choices—such as apple-pears—as a treat.) She prepares the food by washing and, if necessary, cutting it in the school kitchen. It all goes into plastic bags and then into bins in a refrigerator.

The preparation is done according to provincial health regulations. These are mandatory but also very useful, since they provide information about safe handling, refrigeration temperatures and the best cleaning products to use. "At first, I was scared of the food inspectors but they would rather see you succeed than shut you down, and they have been a good resource."

The exchange is simple: one serving of fresh food for each piece of junk food. At Halloween, the rule changes to two treats for a piece of fruit or vegetable. Some children exchange extra items on Friday so they can have something to take home for the weekend.

There is no predicting what will be popular. Dill pickles, which Brown brought in to have something green for Saint Patrick's Day, were a huge hit. Kiwi fruit, broccoli and sweet potatoes have also been successful.

The junk food received is given to a local homeless shelter. Although the food is not healthy, it is very useful in that setting, since it is portable and doesn't spoil.

The program has had a number of unexpected benefits. The local dentist has noted an improvement in children's teeth, and the donation to the homeless shelter has raised awareness. When some of its windows were broken, the students pushed to organize a fundraiser to help replace them, because they felt a connection with the residents.