Julie Chessen, Director of Nutrition Services (2nd from Left) and the
OUSD Nutrition Services Team outside of Matilija Junior High School.
August 2018 - Ojai Unified School District (OUSD) wants parents of students starting school with the District this month to know that in the 5 - 10 minutes it takes to complete a simple form, they are potentially providing their child with free meals at school, while also directing an additional $1,400 per child in Federal and State funding to the District.
The District’s 2nd annual Back-to-School campaign “Feed Our Kids, Fund Our Schools” starts the first day of school on Wednesday, August 22 and runs for only five weeks, ending Friday, September 28. The campaign is aimed at encouraging parents to complete a short, one-page form to see if their child is eligible for “Free & Reduced-Price Meals”, a program sponsored by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
The program allows children to eat nutritious meals at school for free or at a highly reduced price. That means every child that qualifies for reduced-price meals eat breakfast for only $0.30, lunch for only $0.40, which equals $0.70 per day or only $14 per month, if not for free. During the 2017 – 2018 school year, 1,204 students or 49% of the OUSD students population qualified for and participated in the “Free & Reduced-Price Meals” program.
Program eligibility is based on several criteria, including family income. For each student that is determined to be eligible for the program, the District receives an additional $1,400 in Federal and State funding per child. This per student income is paid directly to the School District, even if the child does not use the program. Naturally, the District sees this program as a win-win and wants to ensure that all of its parents know about it and sign-up.
“It’s no secret that one of the keys to a child’s success at school is to eat healthy meals and snacks that provide the energy and fuel to sustain and keep them focused throughout the day,” said Julie Chessen, Director of Nutrition Services at OUSD. “My team’s daily mission is to fortify our students with a wide range of nutritious meals including breakfast and lunch. This program not only ensures that all of our students, regardless of economic status or background, have the opportunity to eat a delicious meal, but it also raises critical funding for our schools that does not require long hours of planning, or parent donations that a traditional fundraiser may require to earn the same amount of money for our schools.”
Despite the program’s benefits, Chessen speculated there are still more families in the district that would qualify for the program but have not enrolled: They feel a stigma attached to the program, they assume they would not qualify for the program so they did not even try to apply, or believe if they do apply, they are redirecting or even eliminating services from other families. Chessen reassures families otherwise.
“I understand that several parents may feel a stigma or shame to sign-up for this program, but they shouldn’t. My team and the District are working hard to turn that perception around,” said Chessen. “All the information on the application form is kept confidential and is only reviewed by two members of the Nutrition Services team. In addition, kids who qualify for the program are not differentiated when getting their meals at school, so there is no way to tell who is part of the program and who isn’t”.
“And with regards to presuming their family does not qualify, I always tell parents that more families qualify for this program than they think”, continued Chessen, “so why not take a few minutes to complete a short form and see if your kids qualify to eat a great breakfast and lunch for free or for no more than $14 a month while helping the District earn extra money.”
“I also advise families that the Free & Reduced Priced Meals program is structured as a reimbursement program, meaning that a school district receives money back for each meal served to qualifying families. So the more students that participate in the program, the more funds the district receives. Funding is not shifted from other programs to support this healthy initiative.”
And what about the misperception that food served at schools is bland, greasy, and otherwise unhealthy? Well the Nutrition Services team has something to say about that too. Their team has completely revamped the old lunch model by not only offering creative, healthy and nutritious meals for students, but also making key changes to its practices that help the environment as well. When students start school in August, they will notice the food is healthier while still tasting great. That is due to Nutrition Services moving away from using artificial colors, artificial flavors or trans fats in the food they prepare. They also make fresh bread everyday at Nordhoff. And whole grains, fruits, vegetables and milk will be served at every meal. In a twist to the Farm-to-Table concept, 70% of the fruits & vegetables served in school comes from local farms, including some produce served at Nordhoff High School which is planted and harvested by Nordhoff Environmental Science students from Steel Acres Farm in Meiners Oaks.
Meals will also include a “Harvest of the Month” where seasonal, California sourced produce will be served every Thursday with a monthly taste tests at recess. And thanks to their long-standing partnership with Food for Thought Ojai, OUSD is becoming even more environmentally friendly by using compostable or recyclable trays at all of the district’s elementary schools.
With all this in store at Ojai Unified, Chessen hopes parents will decide that enrolling in the program is an obvious choice. “Many Districts actively promote this program to their parents, so I am glad that OUSD is continuing this campaign for a second year. Considering the extra time and money parents will save letting me and my team do the work to provide their kids with healthy meals at school each day, and then in doing so earning additional money for our schools, I hope parents are quick to say “where do I sign up?”