Buford Middle School’s student body of about 500 filed through a buffet line during lunch Wednesday sampling finger food and smiling to their friends in approval.

But the event was not any regular meal, it was the school’s 5th annual VegOff, in which Independent Living students prepare healthy dishes for their peers using crops they’ve learned about in their schoolyard garden.

After tasting the fried rice and vegetable pizza samples, students then voted for their favorite, which will be served to the public during Friday’s Harvest Festival at Buford.

“This particular project really helps cultivate skills for healthy living,” said Jeanette Abi-Nader, executive director of the City Schoolyard Garden program, a community organization that works with Charlottesville City Schools to connect youth with nature and aims to increase academic and personal achievement by establishing gardens in the schools.

“The students get to experience a particular crop, they get to see how it grows from seed to harvest and they create recipes,” Abi-Nader said, noting that carrots were this year’s required ingredient.

Eighth grader Hailee Sillett said she is enjoying the Independent Living class because it’s teaching her how to live on her own. Another student highlighted the culinary rewards.

“We learn about different careers and what we might be good at, plus it’s fun to cook and you get to eat some too,” said 8th grader Anna Meyers.

Both students said that they enjoy the time they spend learning about food in the school’s garden, and that the hands-on approach makes learning more interesting.

“When an adult says that eating healthy is important, it doesn’t really mean that much, but when you do it yourself and see the food grow, it’s different,” Meyers said.

Independent Living teacher Marcy Wisbauer said that her classroom was filled with excitement in the weeks leading up to the event.

“I didn’t have to encourage them at all,” Wisbauer said. “They were involved in all of the preparation and nobody stopped working the entire time.”

“It started with chopping skills, because none of them had done that before,” Wisbauer said. “The first lesson we did was how to chop onions and celery.”

Eighth grader Telyjah Veney praised the community-building activity because it gave students an opportunity to try different things.

“And I liked the fried rice because it had peas, which are good, the rice fills you up, and it was all well-cooked,” Venery said.

The Buford Harvest Festival, where visitors can taste the winning recipe, is from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 26 at the school.