Serving Real Food to Real Kids

By Kelly Carmichael (volunteer contributor)

If you ever have the opportunity to speak with Lulu Cohen-Farnell, founder and food innovation officer at Real Food for Real Kids (RFRK), you cannot help but be drawn in by her passion and mission to deliver over 15,000 delicious nutrient-rich meals and 30,000 snacks to kids in childcare centres and elementary schools throughout the Greater Toronto area daily.

Lulu grew up in Paris, where delicious healthy foods made fresh with quality ingredients were the norm. She moved to Canada and started a family in 1999 and, like most working moms, she was concerned about finding quality child care. Her search gave her a blunt introduction to the “North American Diet.” As characterized by the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, this is a diet rich in unhealthy fats, processed foods, over-refined sugars, highly refined and saturated fats, genetically modified ingredients, animal protein and a reduced intake of plant-based fibers.

For Lulu, the lack of nutrient-rich food in childcare centres was a call to action. She quit her job and set her mind to creating a solution that would deliver delicious, nutrient-rich hot meals and snacks high in fruits and vegetables to these childcare centres. The goal was for these meals to fulfil what RFRK calls “The Real Food Promise:” to be free of artificial ingredients, fake sweeteners, factory-farmed meats and fillers of any kind.

RFRK cooks from scratch daily. They focus on using sustainably grown food and include organics as much as their budget allows. They use organic tofu and soy milk, for instance, because Lulu cannot find a comparable substitute that meets her standards.

When I spoke with Lulu, I quickly realized the challenges RFRK faces in upholding this promise. When I asked if and when RFRK uses organic food, Lulu explained that although it would be ideal, it is not possible given RFRK’s budget and the realities of working with multiple suppliers. Additionally, most childcare centres served by RFRK are subsidized. Their challenge, then, is making real food affordable, accessible, delicious and while staying competitive with other caterers who do not share their standards. RFRK offers their menu for $4.89 per child, per day.

“It’s a very challenging market. Unlike restaurants or retail stores, we can’t raise prices,” Lulu said.

RFRK competes against caterers making organic claims on their menus and websites that she insists “can’t possibly be true, given the budget constraints that are necessary in this industry.” She is concerned about catering companies and restaurants deliberately misleading our communities about the provenance and quality of food being given to children.

Lulu often finds herself appealing to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) to deal with false claims being made to an unsuspecting clientele. “Parents only see the food described on the menus and believe what they read,” she explained. “They trust that the daycare director did the detective work, picked the best, healthiest food provider for their kids and verified the veracity of their claims, since there is no third-party certification for caterer food and health claims. Very few parents ask questions, and most don’t realise what is at stake because they do not know that the term ‘organic’ can be freely used in marketing, without the need for verification.”

While the Canadian government has created a national standard to regulate organic certification and labelling, it only applies to products moving across provincial and national borders. Provincial regulation differs across the country, and Ontario currently lacks any regulation at all. This means that it is difficult to police organic claims within Ontario, since organic producers do not have to be certified.

Lulu asserts that many children’s catering organizations use the word “organic” to capture market share, but they do not necessarily embrace organic philosophies. She finds it frustrating that the CFIA cannot penalize inaccurate claims made about organics without the legislation to back them up. For this reason, she hopes Ontario moves quickly to introduce legislation that will provide the necessary framework to regulate organics and provide appropriate penalties for non-compliance. She believes it will provide the necessary tools to monitor those who abuse organic labelling and parents’ trust.

Lulu said she’ll be happy when changes to the legislation are implemented, so she no longer has to be the “good food police.” She believes that early childhood educators should be taught about food literacy and children’s nutrition, and that the general public should be more aware of the issues that accompany them. 

As parents and community members, Lulu believes, we are responsible for expanding our children’s horizons so that they can experience a variety of healthy delicious foods: “We believe in people, good health and want people to be better educated. And, we want the rules enforced.”

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