Nov. 1, 2016 -- Forget “Po-tay-to, Po-tah-to.” The debate at Oxford Elementary’s second School Market pick-up day in mid-October was, “Is it a sweet potato or a yam?”
One of five tables overflowing with fresh fruits and vegetables available for free to any student, parent or community member, was piled high with orange tubers of every shape and size.
“Are they sweet potatoes or yams?” asked one mother.
“Is there a difference?” replied the volunteer replenishing the table.
A conversation ensued among the parents as they stood around filling their bags: “Is it called one thing when it’s raw and another when it’s cooked?” “I always buy them interchangeably.” “I think one is more orange and the other more brown.”
Eventually, a glance at the boxes provided by the Cleveland Food Bank revealed that any answer would do.
The social workers at Oxford and Boulevard Elementary Schools have partnered with the Cleveland Food Bank to provide fresh produce and healthy pantry items to neighborhood residents and school families every month throughout the school year.
“I had been trying to come up with a way to provide more nutritious food to our families outside of the school day,” said district social worker Cindy Schmidt, “when I discovered that Boulevard’s counselor Betsy Race and social worker Karen Allen were working on the same thing.”
Through some serendipitous interactions and a network of longtime friends, the three managed to bring the Cleveland Food Bank’s School Market program to CH-UH.
The Food Bank’s program is available to any school where at least 50% of the student body qualifies for free or reduced lunch, the federal government’s standard for poverty. Most CH-UH schools fall into this category. The goal of the program, which was established by the Food Bank in 2014 in response to rising poverty levels, is to ensure that students and community members have access to affordable fresh produce. In 2015, they began adding healthy pantry items to their markets and now deliver between 4,000 and 5,000 pounds of goods to both Boulevard and Oxford each month.
The program has been well received by students, parents, teachers and community members. There are very few barriers in place, so children are welcome to pick up their own supplies and bring them home after school and community members can show up with no documentation and still select food. “The goal of the Food Bank is straightforward: to feed people,” said Schmidt. “So they put as few obstacles in place as possible.”
The only request from the Food Bank is that the schools document how many students, adults, families and senior citizens are served by the program. According to Schmidt, who has everyone sign in before “shopping,” almost 400 students, 125 families and 66 seniors were served at Oxford’s second School Market on October 18.
Community members gathered early, filling bags with carrots, cucumbers, onions, and romaine lettuce. Students eagerly lined up as soon as the school bell rang, bravely trying out an apple smoothie that was more delicious than it looked.
“It’s yummy … like cinnamon!” said a fourth grade girl who eagerly grabbed a flyer with the printed recipe after taking a very hesitant first sip.
Samuel Saunders, the father of an Oxford kindergartner, was volunteering at one of the tables and wasn’t afraid to close the deal with vegetable-phobic youngsters. “Carrots are like candy!” he shouted to all the kids who walked by. “Carrots help you see in the dark, like a super power!”
The students ate it up, so to speak. And so did the adults. One mother and grandmother were thrilled with the “real fruits and vegetables, with all their twists and bumps, not like the stuff at the grocery store on steroids. It’s phenomenal for the kids to get to be a part of this.”
Second grade teacher Sarah Adair agreed. “This is an amazing resource for our families. And it exposes kids to new foods so they can be risk-takers at home,” she said, referring to one of ten International Baccalaureate learning traits promoted in district buildings.
Program volunteers include community members who are happy for the opportunity to engage with their neighborhood school.
“It’s as if the school is becoming a real thing to people, not just that big brick building they know nothing about,” said Schmidt.
Lynne Maragliano, who retired last spring after 23 years of teaching kindergarten at Roxboro, is thrilled to help at Oxford every month. “There’s nothing more satisfying than seeing people have good, real food. These children are my heart, you know.”
And Oxford grandmother Brenda Beyah’s approach to volunteering is simple: “Any time I have an opportunity to help my community, I take it. We should all be in a race to do good.”
The program will continue throughout the year, moving into the schools’ gymnasiums from November until May. Boulevard’s Karen Allen is hoping to engage a nutritionist from the Food Bank to come and talk with families about how to prepare healthy meals at home using the specific foods that are available each month.
Boulevard’s School Market takes place on the first Tuesday of every month, from 2:30 until 4:30 p.m. and Oxford’s is on the third Tuesday of the month at the same time. All families and community members are welcome to partake and enjoy the nutritious and delicious produce.