“Feed our Kids, Fund Our Schools”
Ojai Unified School District’s Back-to-School campaign encourages parents to enroll
in a program that provides both healthy meals to children
while also directing federal funding to all Ojai Valley public schools
OUSD Nutrition Services at Meiners Oaks Elementary School from L to R: Kimberly Donnelly, Linda Lagos, Amber Stage and Julie Chessen, Director of Nutrition Services
Go to Ojai Valley News to read additional article.
August 23, 2017 - 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 Back-to-School campaign “Feed Our Kids, Fund Our Schools” starts the first day of school on Wednesday, August 23 and runs for only six weeks, ending Friday, September 29. 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 nutritional 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.
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.”
During the 2016 – 2017 school year, 44% of the student population or 1,088 students at OUSD qualified for and participated in the “Free & Reduced-Price Meals” program. This number aligns with what the district's estimate of the overall population of Low-to-Moderate (LMI) households in the Ojai Valley of 43%. However, Andy Cantwell, OUSD Superintendent believes OUSD serves a larger population of lower-income families than are distributed throughout the valley. “The trend within communities is that typically families that are of child-rearing age skew a little more toward median or below median (income) range,” Cantwell said.
A family of four that earns less than $45,510 annually would qualify for reduced-price school meals during the 2017-2018 school year, while a family earning less than $31,980 annually would qualify for free school meals, according to data from OUSD's nutrition services office.
Chessen speculated three main reasons why more parents did not enroll their children in the program: They are unaware of the program, they feel a stigma attached to the program, or they assumed they would not qualify for the program so they did not even try to apply.
“Many Districts actively promote this program to their parents, so I am glad that OUSD has taken steps to further raise awareness of this program so more families know about it and sign-up this school year,” said Chessen. “I also 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,” Chessen continued. “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, 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.”
And what about the misperception that may also be holding some parents back that the food served at school is bland, greasy, and unhealthy so why bother enrolling their kids in the program if the food they are served is undesirable anyway? Well the Nutrition Services team has something to say about that too. Their team has flipped the switch on the old lunch model by not only offering creative, healthy and nutritious meals for students, but making key changes to its practices that help the environment as well.
When school starts this month, students will notice changes to the food that have been made or are underway, that make it healthier while still tasting great. That includes Nutrition Services moving away from using artificial colors, artificial flavors or trans fats and moving toward making most of its meals from scratch. In fact, they 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, Nutrition Services is promoting Farm-to-School where 70% of the fruits & vegetables they serve will come from local farms, including produce served at Nordhoff High School which is planted and harvested by Nordhoff Environmental Science students from Steel Acres Farm in Meiners Oaks. Even their smoothies will be infused with V8 juice!
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. A vegetarian meal option will be available at every lunch.
And thanks to their long-standing partnership with Food for Thought Ojai, OUSD is becoming even more environmentally friendly by eliminating the use of styrofoam trays at lunch (which equals approximately 64,000 trays out of our landfills), and using more recyclable goods.
With all this in store at Ojai Unified, Chessen hopes parents will decide that enrolling in the program is an obvious choice. “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?”