Eel Ground’s Nutrition Programs Bear Fruit
In 2007, Byron Bushey had a vision. As Director of Child & Family Services, Bushey knew well the extraordinary problems aboriginal children faced, especially those at Eel Ground First Nation just outside Miramichi, New Brunswick. He and former principal, Peter MacDonald, both knew that the only way to improve the health and well-being of the kids they worked with every day was to find creative solutions to the root problems in the community, many of which stem from poverty and the toll it takes on a child’s ability to attend and learn in school. So when they received funding from Canadian Feed The Children, they knew just what to do with it.
MacDonald – a passionate, innovative educator who is credited with bringing a Mac computer for every student into his school – worked with other community leaders to develop a nutrition program that would support learning. Beyond remedial help for families living in poverty on the reserve, MacDonald, Bushey and the team of health care professionals and nutritionists who created the plan had longer-term objectives in mind. They wanted a program that would offer incentive to attend school and improve the kids’ capacity to learn once there.
It was imperative that regular meals were available to minimize fluctuations in attention and productivity throughout the day, and that the menu of high-quality calories (protein, fruits, vegetables and healthy grains) was suited to the unique needs of this population. With CFTC’s support, Eel Ground invested considerable time and expertise to develop a menu that would meet the needs of children, many of whom had health statuses already compromised by years of poor nutrition. Fetal alcohol syndrome and Type II diabetes were both present in the kindergarten to grade eight school population, and were significant and growing problems at Eel Ground as they are throughout Canada’s aboriginal communities.
The program Canadian Feed The Children supports at Eel Ground provides breakfasts of fruit, yogurt, whole grain toast or cereal and a protein – usually cheese or peanut butter. Lunches include things such as a tuna sandwich on whole grain bread, a piece of fruit and a glass of milk – for some, the last “real” meal of the day until breakfast the next morning.
Since the nutrition program has been in place, Eel Ground’s current principal, Donald Donahue, and teachers have noted a marked improvement in the children’s behaviour and learning capabilities, not to mention their actual educational outcomes. Adele Small, Canadian Feed The Children’s Program Manager for Canada, reports that teachers regularly comment that students are showing fewer disruptive behaviours in class and have much better abilities to maintain focus throughout the day.
The results are not just anecdotal. In 2008, Donahue administered standardized provincial testing to establish a baseline metric of educational achievement at Eel Ground. The students’ scores have been rising steadily in the two years since then.
Can these improvements be attributed entirely to the nutrition program? Maybe not. But community leaders can say with complete confidence that the foundation for learning and good nutrition that has been created has enabled them to turn their attention to other critical factors that determine health outcomes in the community overall.
Once the basics of good nutrition were in place at Eel Ground First Nation School, essential literacy and numeracy skills could be taught and retained. Building from there, companion programs dealing with other aspects of children’s and community health have recently been undertaken. These include programs on reproductive health, self-esteem and body image issues – mostly for girls, but also for boys – which are delivered by the health centre down the street from the school. Also contributing to educational performance and success, the vision is for these programs to become part of a holistic approach that addresses the multiple root causes of poor health to which every resident is susceptible.
To that end, Adele was delighted to be part of the first ever multi-disciplinary community health planning meeting, which occurred May 17, 2011 during her annual visit to Eel Ground. Community leaders involved in health and education met to share ideas and experiences, brainstorm, and scope an outcome-focused strategy that would carry them into the future. Together with Adele and Dorothy Nyambi, Canadian Feed The Children’s Theory of Change specialist, the Eel Ground team has developed the “Healthy Bodies, Healthy Minds, Healthy Spirits” framework that aligns multiple community programs around specific goals in the areas of physical, mental and emotional health.
“It’s incredibly exciting and hopeful,” said Adele. “For the last several years, CFTC has been the major funder of Eel Ground’s nutrition program, and it’s both satisfying and empowering for everyone to see the program in action.” She observed first-hand that the breakfasts and lunches offered in school play a huge role in keeping students healthy, engaged, attending and able to learn.
In keeping with CFTC’s general development model, Adele also stressed the importance of parents and the community being involved. “We always support a community-led approach,” said Adele. “We know how important it is that parents and others in the community are supported. CFTC’s nutrition programs are strengthened when they are delivered within a broader context of integrated community programming such as the one Eel Ground is envisioning.”
If you’d like to support children’s nutrition and education programs in Canada and elsewhere in the world, please consider a gift of:
One month of school lunches in developing countries ($50)
High-energy food supplements specially formulated to reduce or prevent malnutrition ($85)