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Charlottesville school lunch program gets a healthy-sized grant

Cultivate Charlottesville has teamed up with the city school division to bring more produce and local food to school lunches, aided by a recent large financial boost.

A five-year, $500,000 grant from the Charlottesville Area Community Foundation is supporting the multi-pronged effort, called the Just Food for Charlottesville program, which includes increasing the number of students eating school meals, ensuring that their voices are heard when it comes to what is served and purchasing equipment for kitchens. Cultivate Charlottesville also will work with students to educate them about healthy options.

Carlton Jones, director of nutrition services for the city schools, said the timeline for the project has been delayed a bit because of the pandemic and school closures. Long-term, he’s hoping to redesign the serving lines at Buford Middle and Charlottesville High schools to showcase the new food options along with the program’s other goals.

But before they get to that point, Jones said he wants to hear from students about the meals served.

“We can put out as an administration what we think is best, but until we actually get feedback from students, we really don’t know,” he said, adding that they want to survey students. “I’m looking forward to hearing from students because that’s something that works. I know that with having student feedback, that is just a positive change all the way around.”

Cultivate Charlottesville has worked with the school division for more than 10 years through its City Schoolyard Garden program.

The grant is part of CACF’s Shaping Futures program. The University of Virginia Health System and Dorothy Batten are helping to fund the grant. The goal of the program is to support projects that improve outcomes in key areas of the region’s community health improvement plan.

CACF said in a news release that it had sought proposals that could lead to population-level change for a specific demographic group in areas such as healthy eating and active living, mental health and substance abuse, equity and accessibility, and the fostering of a healthy and connected community for all ages.

About 54% of the division’s students qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch. In 2018, about 12% of Charlottesville residents were considered food insecure, meaning they lack access, at times, to enough food for an active, healthy life, according to a Feeding America database. Statewide, about 10% of people were food insecure in 2018.

The Just Food program was created to improve food security and health outcomes for Charlottesville youth through increased access to and consumption of healthy school meals, engagement in school gardens, and cultivating leadership and lifelong healthy living skills, according to a CACF announcement.

“They had a strong relationship with Charlottesville City Schools, and have been implementing these types of programs in the schools for years,” said Aiyana Marcus, programs manager for CACF. “And so their project really did begin to build upon about 10 years of work that they had already begun in the schools.”

Cultivate Charlottesville is the second group to receive a Shaping Futures grant since the program started in 2016. The first grant was awarded to Birth Sisters of Charlottesville, which seeks to address systemic racial disparities faced by Black women seeking maternal health care.

Marcus hopes the Just Food program can provide lessons to other school districts that want more students to eat the provided meals and to increase the healthy and fresh options.

If students are nourished on a regular basis, academic outcomes improve, Marcus said.

“We’re just excited for the momentum that this poses not just locally,” she said. “Hopefully, it can be shared in regions outside of Charlottesville as a model for how we can really serve youth and provide them with the nutrition that they need to be successful in school and in life.”

Healthy school lunches are about food equity, said Jordan Johnson, the garden team manager and health advocate for Cultivate Charlottesville.

“That’s the idea that we should be providing nutritious food to all of our students who are getting that food, including those eligible for free and reduced-priced meals,” he said.

That’s why the program includes increasing the number of students who are eligible for free or reduced-priced lunch, to boost the number of children eating school meals.

“Because if we do all of this, and students are not eating the meals more, then there’s still something that we’re lacking and there’s still more work that we need to do,” he said.

To boost the participation rates of students in the school lunch program, Johnson said hearing students’ feedback will be important.

“It’s the recognition that these students know what they want, and they know why they don’t like it,” he said. “So if we’re able to create these solid feedback loops between students and the nutrition department, it’s really going to create an opportunity for the nutrition department to respond to the needs and the interests of those students.”

They also want to hear from students and parents of students who are facing food insecurity.

Students working with Cultivate Charlottesville as Food Justiceinterns already have started meeting with school division staff to share their opinions, and the division is responding by adding more vegetarian options, Johnson said.

The Just Food project brings together smaller initiatives that Cultivate has been working on, such as Farm to School Week and Harvest of the Month, which they’ve had since 2015 to highlight local produce.

“That’s both to provide that exposure to students and build up their nutrition vocabulary and understanding that they do or don’t like turnips,” Johnson said. “We know that it takes seven to 13 tastes of produce for students to decide whether they like that food or not.”

Jones said the education piece is an important component of the project.

“Sometimes it’s hard,” Jones said, “but just our nutrition staff educating students coming to the line — they can help print up educational materials. Just working with the youth and the interns is a huge piece. So they’re actually helping us get the feedback and get some of these items that are going to be on the lines that are going to be healthier that the students will enjoy.”

Jordan works with students in the gardens where they learn more about different types of food and how it’s grown.

For this project, the garden will help students learn leadership skills as they advocate for changes in school lunches, Johnson said.

“Students will have more of the language and understanding of what they want to see and being able to clarify a little bit more of what their specific asks are,” he said.

Johnson’s excited for the conversations with students. They’ll be able to weigh in on which foods make them feel sluggish or which foods they don’t like.

“So really wanting to delve into some of those barriers that are in place for students, and listening to the voices of the students and making sure that we’re putting them in a place to lead the discussion,” he said.

Despite the pandemic delay, Johnson said they’ve already been able to use the funding to support the schools. Cultivate purchased a larger oven for Johnson Elementary. The school’s kitchen needed more capacity to produce meals as part of the delivery program to serve students learning at home.

Jones said that help was tremendous.

Cultivate also has purchased items such as peelers, cutting boards and carts for school kitchens. That way, cafeteria staffers will be prepared when they start to get in more produce and local food options.

“They’re able to actually get this raw produce and be able to feel successful and able to actually put that on the line where it is more than just opening boxes and sticking things in the oven,” Johnson said.


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