On the second Monday evening of each month, Oxford residents gather at the Oxford Senior Center for meals prepared by University of Miami nutrition students and various volunteers. These monthly meals began in September 2022 and have been attracting growing crowds ever since.
The idea for the community meals came from Nancy Parkinson, a clinical associate professor in Miami’s Department of Kinesiology, Nutrition and Health. Parkinson is a member of the Oxford Presbyterian Church, which has been one of five churches participating in the weekly Wednesday dinners for more than 20 years.
Parkinson said he noticed the need for a community meal somewhere more neutral than a church. She floated the idea at a meeting in August between churches and other community organizations.
Oxford senior center director Steve Schnabl came to the meeting and said they were trying to restore programming at the senior center.
“I thought, ‘Well, there’s a need in this community [the senior center] to provide food and friendship and just get together because we’ve been locked down with COVID,” Parkinson said. “And members of religious communities have said they want to return to that friendship.”
While the meal takes place at the senior center, Parkinson says the event is for everyone in the community.
Hannah Rogers, a junior nutrition student, volunteers as a waitress at dinner parties. A requirement for one of his nutrition classes, Rogers said, is to volunteer at community events in Oxford to prepare or serve food.
Rogers said she likes to help with the draws at the end of dinner. Healthy ingredients and cooking utensils are distributed to encourage participants to cook nutritious meals.
“Once an older man’s name was called, and half the room started clapping and the other half shouting, ‘You always win, Bob,'” Rogers said. “It was really fun to watch.”
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The senior center also offers a drive-thru option to pick up the meal for people worried about COVID-19, Parkinson said.
Roger added that nutrition students are also knocking on the doors of senior center residents and offering them packaged meals.
“A lot of people don’t know about dinner yet, so they walk around the senior center asking, ‘Hey, do you want a free meal?’ helped seniors learn about the community dinner,” Rogers said. “Most of the time they really like having a free meal too.”
Parkinson teaches a food systems management class where his students are tasked with planning a menu for a community event, such as these dinner parties.
“The students do the cost of the menu, the nutritional analysis, and then help plan. Senior students help plan nutrition education,” Parkinson said. “Some of the planning is built into any of my classes, giving them real-world experience.”
The community dinner at the senior center is one of the events organized by the Culinary Nutrition Depot. Students in the Nutrition and Dietetics Program and the Student Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (SAND) participate in a variety of other programs, including a weekly lunch and learn program and nutrition education at daycare. eat TOPSS.
Dinner is followed by a nutritional demonstration of Parkinson’s KNH303 Food Systems Management Course; Parkinson and one of his students teach participants how to prepare a meal with healthier options than they would usually use. The demonstration also teaches what makes some foods healthier than others and how to prepare a balanced meal.
For November, Parkinson showed how to make spaghetti squash alongside nutrition expert Lauren Miller.
Miller is an intern in Miami’s Department of Nutrition and has had Parkinson’s as a teacher since Miller’s freshman year. Part of her role includes planning community dinner shows.
“We try to base the meal for the demonstration on what we serve for the main meal,” Miller said. “We served pasta tonight, so we chose to teach how to make spaghetti squash as an alternative.”
Miller said the dinner parties have become increasingly popular.
“Everyone brings their friends, and the first one was a smaller group, but it keeps growing, so obviously the word is spreading,” Miller said. “Nancy eats at all the nearby houses so I think it’s fun for everyone to come and hang out with their friends and catch up.”
In addition to its nutrition students, Parkinson has recruited volunteers from ROTC, Kiwanis Circle K, the Student Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and churches in Oxford.
Paulette Worcester is a member of the Presbyterian Church, where she was first told about the community dinner and volunteered as a waitress at the November 14 dinner.
Worcester came to dinner with her husband. The two brought apple pie which Worcester made.
“It was fun. I got to know some of the people who came to dinner, some from the church,” Worcester said. “It’s nice to see people and participate.”
Mickey Preston sat with his friends Jerri Hill and Wilma Glasshagel. Preston and Hill heard about the dinner from the senior center newsletter, and Glasshagel heard about it by word of mouth.
A resident of Oxford for 60 years, Preston has been at every meal so far. Her favorite dish they served was mashed potatoes and gravy.
Hill loves raffles and hanging out with his friends.
“Last time I won a reusable bag, so that was fun,” Hill said. “If I wasn’t here, I’d probably be home with a TV dinner.”
Parkinson said community meals have so far been funded by donations from former students to the nutrition department and she is considering applying for grants from Oxford. The Oxford Coalition for a Healthy Community plans to pay for the January meal, and a scheme with the Oxford Chamber of Commerce is also in the works.
Each month, Parkinson centers the dinner around a theme. For the month of November the dinner honored the veterans. Parkinson said a few years ago that a student of his who was in the military introduced him to the tradition of the Fallen Comrades’ Table.
“The table is set for one, symbolizing the fact that some are missing from our ranks. The tablecloth is white, symbolizing the purity of their intentions to answer their country’s call to arms,” Parkinson said. “I want to thank all the students I worked with for their dedication.”
The next community dinner will be on Monday, December 12, and Parkinson plans to decorate Christmas cookies at the dinner.