School-focused health promotion project gets international recognition

APPLE Schools, a school-focused health promotion project, has been selected as one of the world’s top 100 most innovative and inspiring education projects of 2020 by HundrED, whose goal is to improve education through pedagogically-sound education initiatives.

The project works with vulnerable students to improve their mental health, healthy eating and physical activity habits. The project, which began in 2007 in the School of Public Health, was chosen for its unique pioneering status and ability to create a scalable impact reaching more than 20,000 vulnerable students each year.

“After growing for the past several years and proving that our model works, it is an absolute honour to have this international recognition,” said Jenn Flynn, executive director of APPLE Schools.

Program showed early signs of success

Prior to the formation of APPLE Schools, researcher Paul Veugelers had been conducting studies to see if he could make a difference in the health of schoolchildren in terms of their eating habits and physical activity. At the same time, Calgary businessman and philanthropist Allan Markin, who is passionate about the health of kids, made a significant gift to the University of Alberta to support work that would improve the eating habits of schoolchildren.

The gift from Markin, a University of Alberta alumnus, provided the financial support to launch APPLE Schools in 10 schools in Alberta. Veugelers, as the director of APPLE Schools, led the implementation and evaluative research. Within two years, this research revealed promising results: an improvement in diet quality and an increase in physical activity levels among students in participating schools. In 2010, Kate Storey joined the team as postdoctoral fellow to strengthen the qualitative research.   

The project transitioned from the University of Alberta and continued operations as a private charitable foundation. By 2014, after several years of rapid growth and another substantial gift from Markin, APPLE Schools was operating in 50 schools.  

“This transition enabled us to pursue additional funding sources and to oversee operations,” explains board chair Lory Laing, who is former interim dean of the School of Public Health. “However, APPLE Schools would not have been as successful without the support of the School, and we are very appreciative.”

Research and evidence show impact on kids’ health

An essential component of the program continues to be research and evidence. “We have an ongoing partnership with School of Public Health researchers, Dr. Veugelers and Dr. Storey, as well as others in the faculties of Kinesiology, Sport and Recreation; Medicine and Dentistry; and Agricultural, Life and Environmental Sciences at the University of Alberta,” explains Flynn.  

In addition, APPLE Schools has been a training ground for more than two dozen research degree students in the School of Public Health, as well as a practicum host for dozens more from other University of Alberta faculties.

Because APPLE Schools is consistently generating sustainable health habits, the National Cancer Institute has recognized it as a research tested intervention program.

“The APPLE Schools program is the most evidence based, effective public health intervention I have seen,” says Laing. “It has the empirical evidence to show how effective it is. And when you give that evidence to potential donors, funders and schools, it helps them decide that they want to be part of it.”

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It is clear that the program results in positive changes in eating habits and physical activity behaviours among vulnerable kids. But, studies done by Veugelers, Storey and others have shown a positive impact on learning, health outcomes and healthy home culture.

For instance, a recent study by Kara Loewen and Veugelers, showed evidence that meeting established lifestyle recommendations for diet, physical activity, sleep and sedentary behavior in childhood has potential significant benefits for adolescents’ mental health.

“The evidence bolsters our messages,” says Flynn, “but it also gives people confidence that what they are doing is bigger than just being a good idea. Teachers, schools and parents know that what they are doing is making a difference.”

Looking to the future

The recognition received from HundrED is encouraging for the APPLE Schools team. “It affirms our future directions,” says Laing. “Now that we are linked into this global network of education innovators, we will be able to learn from others about how to address scalability.”

The goal for the project, now in 74 schools, is to be in 100 schools by 2025. “We believe in continuing to support what we started, and we value the sustainability of our programs,” states Flynn. 

“We want our APPLE Schools to forevermore provide healthy environments and support health behaviours that will prevent chronic diseases in the future.”


APPLE Schools is supported by various funders and partners through the APPLE Schools Foundation.