The PEI School Food Program is popular

CHARLOTTETOWN, PEI — PEI School Food Program meal orders. increased by 50% compared to last year, said the director of the program.

The non-profit organization has served more than 265,000 meals since September 13. Even with a break in January as schools remained closed due to the COVID-19 Omicron wave, the numbers are good, executive director Katelyn MacLean said.

“The program went really, really well,” said MacLean, who spoke to SaltWire Network by phone on Feb. 17. “It’s higher (meal count) than we even anticipated, but it’s great.”

A new multilingual ordering website and improvements to menu items can help with success, she said.

The healthy meals on demand program is in its second full year of operation. It is run by PEI School Food Program Inc., a nonprofit that took over the province on July 1.

Last year, the program had an average attendance rate of 11.8% per school, and this year it’s hit about 30%, MacLean said.

The program is available to all schools on PEI, and meals are ordered biweekly through a new website,, MacLean said. Meals are prepared, packaged and delivered in time for lunch.

At the Conseil scolaire de langue française (CSLF), the program works a little differently. Five of the six French-language schools have a kitchen operated by the community center, so while the recipes are the same, their menus and schedules are different. They also do not use the online ordering platform.

“It’s very popular,” CSLF superintendent Gilles Arsenault said when he spoke to the SaltWire network by phone Feb. 17. “It’s convenient and also healthier options for kids.”

Menu choice

The menu and recipes are developed by Canada’s Smartest Kitchen at the Culinary Institute of Canada, and several factors are considered before the recipe appears on the menu, MacLean said.

The food has to be healthy, of course, she says, but with some vendors producing up to 1,000 meals a day, the recipes also have to be able to be produced in large volumes. To meet different dietary requirements, the meals all have a vegetarian and/or gluten-free version.

“(We) keep all of that, plus cost, plus packaging, plus shipping, all of those things, in mind when designing our menus,” MacLean said.

The PEI School Food Program also follows school food environment guidelines, which are based on the new Canada’s Food Guide.

As for what’s popular, with more than 10,000 diners registered on the ordering platform, that’s changing “on every level,” MacLean said.

“It’s difficult when we’re using an island-wide menu,” she says. “So we try to go middle of the road. … It’s a challenge to make everyone happy, but we do our best to listen to feedback and follow as many trends as possible while respecting the criteria we have to follow.

Good to know

The PEI School Food Program is developing new menu items to keep up with student tastes, said general manager Katelyn MacLean.

Here are three new items added in 2022:

• Burrito bowl

• Pulled Pork Pizza

• Sweet and sour meatballs with rice

Arsenault said the menu changes are appreciated.

“They’ve listened to feedback from schools and parents and they’ve made some nice adjustments from the pilot year, and I think that’s why it’s becoming more and more popular. … It’s a variety of choices and it’s good for our schools.

The PEI School Food Program competes with the cafeterias of about 14 PEI schools as well as elementary school “pizza days”, but this food is generally not as healthy as the meals provided by the program, MacLean said. She hopes that will change as the program evolves.

“Schools are an institutional setting where they have the opportunity to lead by example,” MacLean said.

The PEI School Food Program changes the menu every two weeks.  - Contributed
The PEI School Food Program changes the menu every two weeks. – Contributed

Please pay what you can

Meals are ordered confidentially through the website which is available in 11 languages.

The suggested price is $5, and diners can pay anywhere from $0 to $5 with an option to pay more if they wish, MacLean said.

“If you are able to pay, we encourage you to pay, because this program will not be able to sustain itself for every child who is in dire need of financial assistance to be able to eat every day.”

Gilles Arsenault

The organization did not cite the average meal payment, but MacLean said it was less than $5.

“It’s lower than expected, and the trend is down, but as you can imagine, it’s probably due to the current state of the economy,” she said, pointing out that the inflation and the high cost of groceries and gasoline were contributing to financial strain.

Arsenault encourages families to really pay what they can.

“It’s not a free lunch,” Arsenault said.

He said he heard people say, “These are government taxes, I’m not going to pay them.

“It will not provide a sustainable model for every child in the province. … If you are able to pay, then we encourage you to pay because this program cannot sustain itself for every child who really needs financial assistance to be able to eat every day.

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