By Lindsey Derrick Dalton Public Schools contributor
For Dalton Public Schools, National School Lunch Week (Oct. 15-19) is a time to recognize the outstanding service and food quality provided to students and employees by the dedicated school nutrition staff.
DPS is going into its seventh year under a new meal plan that offers a variety of healthier foods. School Nutrition Director Amy Weaver-Akins said she has seen no problem with children accepting the new lower fat options in the lunchroom.
“They’ve accepted foods like sweet potatoes and beans,” she said. “They’re used to eating fast-food at home, so what we’re serving is comfort food to them.”
The new plan is very different from school lunches of the past — there are many more fresh fruit and vegetable options, starchy foods have been limited (potatoes are only served once per week), there are more whole grains, less fatty foods, milk with less fat, and there are no desserts to be found. The options for dessert are now fruit, juice bars and yogurt.
Out of the five food groups, students must put three of them on their plate, and one of those choices has to be a half-cup serving size of either a fruit or vegetable.
Park Creek lunchroom manager Teresa Thomas said she likes that the students have so many options to choose from. “It’s healthier and there’s more variety,” she said. “We rotate choices every four weeks so they don’t have the same choices. It makes our day when they tell us ‘thank you’ for their lunch.”
While Weaver-Akins is happy the meal plan now is much healthier, she said the government-suggested calorie limit might hinder the older students. “The serving size is not enough sometimes, especially for high school boys and those who do things after school,” she said.
With an enrollment of around 7,500 kids, 6,206 lunches are served per day, as are 3,559 breakfast plates.
Weaver-Akins makes sure these students are getting adequate food — she will get lunch from random schools around the system and taste the food and critique it. If it needs improving, she lets them know, but she also lets the school know when the food is very good.
All the DPS schools follow the same recipe, and some are submitted by managers and employees. All managers go through training to make their food the best it can be. Head chefs even come in to show employees how to best cook certain foods. “It’s a balancing act of pleasing the child, the parents and teachers, and the government,” Weaver-Akins said of the meals.
Nutrition Education Coordinator Jodi Brown is head of a program called the Fresh Fruit and Veggie Program. It is offered to schools with the highest percentages of students that qualify for free or reduced lunch. In DPS, Park Creek, City Park, Roan and Blue Ridge all take part in the program — every child in the school receives either a fresh fruit or vegetable snack during their day. “It helps them get exposed fruits and vegetables and learn about them,” Brown said. “Kids used to bring honeybuns as snacks, but this really promotes healthier eating.”
Along with the healthy snack, kids will learn about the food they are eating. They may learn how the food got its name or where it grows.
“Every day is a surprise,” Brown said of the snack selection. So far most foods have been a hit (like apples from nearby Ellijay and options from local Whitco Produce), but some are a little too odd (beets were unpopular with the students.) All of the fruits and veggies given as snacks must be completely fresh — steamed vegetables are OK, but there can be no fried or canned or frozen options.
During the summer, there is a Summer Nutrition Program. Stations are set up around the city that give a free lunch to any child under 18. “It doesn’t matter who, what color skin they have, how rich or poor they are, they are given a free lunch,” Weaver-Akins said.
For every meal served, the school system is reimbursed. Each meal served in DPS costs around $2 to make. A reduced priced lunch costs students 40 cents, but Weaver-Akins gets $2.48 back from the government for that one meal. DPS receives about $400,000 in lunch reimbursement a month from the government — that’s enough to pay costs such as salaries, equipment and food prices and keep the school nutrition program self-supporting.
This month, Weaver-Akins went to Macon to receive an award from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for Georgia’s Best Practices. DPS was recognized for its wellness incentive program. The program helps the 80 system lunchroom workers stay active and live a healthier life. There are nutrition lessons and information on health such as dental care. There are also activities to get them moving and staying in shape such as Zumba classes.
“When I got here it was just food service,” Weaver-Akins said. “We just put what we had on the plate. If they eat it fine, and if not, that’s OK, too. Now it’s a complete flip flop.”
“It is truly a nutrition program now,” Brown said. “This job has opened my eyes to how important it is to take care of ourselves, and to teach our students the importance of diet and exercise.”