Let’s face it, for many working parents with children in school, fixing a nutritious breakfast is the last thing we have time for in the morning. In fact, we’re lucky to get a bowl of sugary cereal in their stomachs before the bus arrives and, if they’re teenagers, we’re relieved to see them grab a Pop-Tart on their way out the door.
Thank goodness for President Harry S. Truman and those prospective young soldiers during WWII who couldn’t meet the health requirements for basic military service. When the government realized that poor nutrition during the great depression had resulted in a shortage of able-bodied men who could serve their country in times of war, plans were made to boost the overall health and nutrition of the American population in preparation for the next war. Thus, the National School Lunch Act was passed in 1946. This federal program that provides low cost or free meals, including breakfast and lunch, to qualified students is still a valuable, yet often misunderstood part of our public school system.
For instance, many parents may not be aware that a school system’s Food Services Program is under the direct supervision of the state and federal government, not the local Board of Education. In other words, the school board cannot dictate how food is prepared or the portion size that is served. All of these things are determined according to NSLP requirements. For example, in order to satisfy NSLP fat content requirements, many schools are now serving French fries that are baked instead of deep fried, or they may serve baked chips instead of fries. Pizza, a traditional favorite, is now made with low fat cheese and whole-grain wheat crust.
Obviously, one of the main goals of the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) as identified by Congress is to promote the health and well-being of the nation’s children. According to Nancy Rice, Director of Georgia’s School Nutrition Program, Georgia leads the nation with the fastest increase in obesity, including childhood obesity. Rice stated the following in her Finance and Business Operations report:
“A recent study in the Journal of Pediatrics reported that more than one fourth of children, aged 5-10, had one or more adverse cardiovascular disease risk factors. Both unhealthy eating habits and too little physical activity are the cause of these heart risk factors.”
In response to recent public concerns about childhood obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure, many states such as Georgia have imposed stricter nutritional requirements on both school lunches and other foods and beverages available in schools.
Yes, school meals have changed quite a bit in the last few years. Ask any high school student and he or she will tell you that they miss having French fries every other day. And, of course, gravy is only served at Thanksgiving and Christmas. But, these changes are not bad, just different. And in the south, it takes time to accept “different”.
This is something June Poulsen, Effingham County School’s new food service coordinator was quick to realize. Poulsen moved to Effingham County in July from Gainesville, where she served for six years as the food services coordinator for Hall County Schools.
One of the first things she noticed when she visited Effingham’s school kitchens was the deep fryers. While surprised to see these still being used, considering the NSLP’s crack down on fat intake, she understood the southern connection to foods that are traditionally fried, such as chicken. She’s hoping that students will be open to something different and healthier — like the herb baked chicken that will be served today.
“My job is like a juggling act,” said Poulsen. “When I plan meals, I have to focus on student health in order to meet federal requirements. But I also have to keep the students happy by serving foods that they want to eat and keep it within cost.”
While Poulsen said she doesn’t plan on making any sweeping changes to this year’s lunch program she
is determined to see that students in all schools have an opportunity to eat a nutritious breakfast. In fact, her second most important goal is to increase participation in the breakfast program.
“I would love to see every student eating breakfast at school,” explained Poulsen. “It is the most important meal of the day and it provides the ‘fuel’ children need for growing and learning.” Again, Poulsen’s focus is on student health, and promoting a healthier student profile is another of her goals as the food service coordinator.
She is motivated by the sad prediction that children born since 2000 will have shorter life spans due to increased cases of type II diabetes (a result of eating foods with a high fat content) and high blood pressure (often blamed on high salt consumption.).
According to research conducted by the School Nutrition Association, not only do students who eat school lunches consume more fruits and vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy products than students that get their lunch from other sources, but school lunches are also a better value, costing a national average of $2 to buy versus $3.40 to bring from home. And unlike some of the brown bag lunches students bring from home, the school breakfasts and lunches provided through the National School Lunch Program are nutritious, balanced meals, provided in age-appropriate serving sizes that meet federal nutrition requirements.
“Unfortunately, many Americans believe that the amount of food provided with a ‘super-sized’ meal is an acceptable amount of food to eat and that anything less is not enough,” said Poulsen “We’ve got to change this mindset for our children if we want them to be healthier and live longer.”
Poulsen’s number one goal for the Effingham County Food Service Program, however, is to operate within the program’s budget and stay in the black. For the past few years, the rising costs of food, gas and other issues have resulted in a deficit, requiring the local board of education’s financial assistance at the end of the year.
“I want this program to be self-sufficient,” she explained. “While we haven’t been in the red as badly as some other school systems, we still need to turn the financials around this year.”
Poulsen noted that all food service coordinators have different strengths and hers happens to be fiscal and program management. Her bachelor’s degree in psychology and masters in education comes in handy as well. Poulsen believes that in order to run a successful school food service program, she has to start with educating her kitchen managers and cooks on new ways to order food, prepare food and serve food.
For example, in the past when the government offered cheese commodities to the schools, they often had difficulty finding room to store the large amounts of cheese. This year, Poulsen plans to divert some of this cheese to the companies that make the individual pizzas in exchange for a reduced cost when she orders pizza from that company. She intends to do the same with peanut butter commodities; diverting some of the peanut butter to Smucker’s in exchange for their popular PB&J Uncrustables. In addition to offering the students something nutritious that they like to eat, ordering the pre-made sandwiches helps eliminate the chance for cross-contamination, a concern for students that are allergic to peanuts.
Despite the changes in federal requirements and the different way foods must be prepared and served, the majority of Effingham County students still purchase and eat school lunches. In fact, 73 percent of students participate in the National School Lunch Program. This is encouraging for Poulsen who hopes to see that trend continue and even increase as she focuses on helping students eat healthier and be successful in the classroom.