Oxford School District is one of the best in the state according to the recent A-ratings for all its schools, but the administration is as much focused on the health of their students as their education. The processed chicken nuggets and square pizzas typically seen in school lunches no longer have a place in the district and were replaced with quality ingredients and some locally grown produce.
Sunny Young has been the Good Food for Oxford Schools project coordinator for two years and has seen a ton of improvements in the food served in the district.
Since the program began in the 2012-13 school year, Young said the district has increased its made-from-scratch meals from 30 percent to 75 percent, and many schools now have student-worked gardens and student-requested salad bars.
“A lot of kids think healthy is something adults do, so we don’t bash bad foods — we just get super excited about kale and carrots,” Young said. “We have kids who would have never touched a vegetable who have started working with our program in our school gardens and in the classroom, too. It really changes their perception about it, and they start to ask for salads with dinner at home.”
The program focuses on three main areas: cafeteria, classroom and community. The school meals are focused around fresh, quality ingredients instead of processed mystery foods; the students learn about nutrition and gardening in their classes; and the program offers community classes to get Oxford residents involved in the initiative.
In the cafeteria, nutritious meals are planned for the students. Young said the goal for the program this year is to have a salad bar and garden at every school before the end of classes in May.
So far, there are salad bars at the high school, requested by the after-school Food Club, and middle school, and Young said the district has already approved salad bars at the remaining campuses.
“The Food Club at the high school is the reason the salad bar is there,” Young said. “They wanted it, they planned for it, they got all the other students excited about it, and it’s doing well because of the food club.”
The district is also making a furtive effort to add more local farms to their suppliers, and has put out a request for information for farmers who are interested in partnering with the district. Young said the district is able to be very competitive with pricing for local fruits and vegetables, often matching or beating grocery store prices.
“It’s a way to see exactly what we would need from them if you’re going to sell to the school district,” Young said. “I think there’s a perception among farmers that they can’t meet our price point, or that they don’t have the right certifications. This document really clears that all up.”
For the classroom aspect, many classes will have lessons outside in the school gardens, learning about math while counting plots or about photosynthesis with hands-on demonstration. Young also said the lessons are all aligned with the Common Core standards, so it’s no additional work for the students or teachers.
Four of the six schools have on-site gardens, and the goal is to add one at both Oxford Middle and High schools this year. Young said many students are excited about working in the gardens and seeing their hard work come to fruition in the form of fruits and vegetables.
“Farmers are struggling, and the small farms are disappearing. It’s sad,” Young said. “At the same time, we have this health crisis and obesity epidemic, and I think the two can be improved simultaneously.”
For the community, Young said the program sponsors a number of cooking, canning and other related skill classes throughout the year for parents and Oxonians. This month, they will partner with the University of Mississippi for a free canning class 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 25, at Lenoir Hall, 102 Sorority Row.
“We know we need to change eating habits at home, too, because we can do all we want in the cafeteria, but this is two meals a day,” Young said. “They have all summer away from us. Our community aspect is to take this excitement we’re generating in the schools and bring it to the rest of the Oxford and Lafayette community, letting everyone know there is a role for them in the Good Foods program.”
Young said the program has exploded over the past two school years, and she only expects it to flourish from here. Last year, the program was able to exceed fundraising goals and hopes to be awarded another grant in November to continue the program at full-speed for the betterment of Oxford students districtwife.
“Since there have been budget cuts and a focus on math and science in Mississippi school districts, nutrition gets cut, culinary classes get cut, so students are craving that,” Young said. “Not every kid is going to go to college and become a doctor, lawyer or scientist. There are plenty of kids that would make for great farmers or great chefs, and we want to give them that exposure.”
Farmers interested in partnering with Oxford School District should contact Young at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Amelia Camurati is managing editor for HottyToddy.com. Shoot her an email at email@example.com for comments, criticism, or story ideas.
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