Healthy Hunger Free Kids of Georgia

A School Food Success Story

  • Hero Stories
  • September 03, 2015
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This September marks an important milestone for federally regulated healthy school food. The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA), the law that governs the National School Lunch Program and other federally subsidized child nutrition programs, is set to expire on September 30, 2015, at which point lawmakers must decide which provisions of the act to reauthorize for the next five years. 

Let’s take a look back: As a response to the growing childhood obesity epidemic in America, the HHFKA required schools to serve more fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. The legislation also established calorie maximums by age group and sodium reductions. Since then, the debate on the congressional floor has centered on threats to roll back the progressive nutrition requirements that define the legislation. These threats are being rationalized by the claim that implementing the healthy standards has been too difficult and financially burdensome for schools. 

As lobbying groups backed by big food corporations continue to clamor for these rollbacks, we’d like to highlight a real life example of why these standards are not only working in schools, but are more important than ever for the health of our nation’s children.

The Burke County Philosophy

Donna Martin, food service director of Burke County Public Schools in Burke County, Georgia, passionately believes in serving healthy, scratch-cooked food to the 4,500 students in her district. With 23 years of experience under her belt, Martin has fine-tuned her program to both meet the nutrition requirements established by the federal law and satisfy her students with tasty, nourishing food. 

  • District Size: 4,500 students
  • Number of Schools in District: 5 schools (3 elementary, 1 middle, 1 high school)
  • Free and Reduced Percentage: 100% 
  • Average Daily Participation: Breakfast: 77.6%; Lunch: 88.4%; Supper: 15%

We do a lot of scratch cooking and all of our kitchens are fully operational with walk-in freezers, commercial combi ovens and industrial cutting equipment,” she explains. “My philosophy has always been that I want to make sure my staff has the equipment they need to produce the kind of food I want to be feeding the kids.

Not only does Martin supply the right equipment, she also provides the staff with the training they need to make the healthy options taste good.. In addition to 12 hours of in-service training before every school year, Martin makes sure that her team understands the value of good nutrition. In a low-income area of the South, where salty, sumptuous, Southern diets and processed foods are the norm, Martin sees school food service as a public health solution. “My staff can see how overweight the kids are, that this is an epidemic and that we have a huge role to play,” she reflects. “We give them breakfast, lunch and supper—everything they put in their mouths for the whole week—so it’s important that we’re giving them good, nourishing food.” 

Making the Healthy Option the Tasty Option

But the argument that school lunch naysayers keep coming back to is Why keep the healthy standards intact if kids don’t like the taste of the healthy food?They claim that the regulations are contributing to more food being thrown away, and more children opting out of the lunch program. These claims, however, are broad strokes that can be addressed by food service staff.

​“They say it takes 15 times for a child to taste something new for them to like it,” Martin notes. And in a nation where our kids’ taste buds are constantly bombarded by high sodium, high sugar, processed foods, it takes repeat exposure, creative menus, and the freshest of ingredients to help them get accustomed to the flavors of real food. 

Variety in the lunchroom is hugely important for getting kids on board with healthy food. Burke County has two or three entrées, two fruits, and three vegetable options every day.  When children have that choice, they are much more likely to find a meal they want to eat. “When we do see waste,” Martin says, “it’s the ‘my eyes were bigger than my stomach’ variety, not because they don’t like the food.

Another taste solution that Martin has employed to tempt the kids into eating their veggies is providing “flavor stations” where they can add salt substitute spices to their food. Kids get to shake the red pepper flakes, rosemary garlic, and onion powder, which not only adds healthy flavor, but also engages them more fully in mealtime. 

Our farm to school efforts have been a huge help in this area as well,” Martin reports. In her experience, the quality and freshness of local produce contributes to a much tastier product that proves appealing to even the pickiest of eaters. When the vegetable you’re serving has come straight from the local farm, it doesn’t need as much seasoning for it to be delicious. 

Thinking Local

For Martin, sourcing school food locally contributes to community wide healthy change. This past school year, their collard greens, cabbage, and sweet potatoes were 100% local, and the district saw a huge increase in vegetable consumption and participation in the meal program as a result. 

When asked by a teacher why Martin did not prepare the sweet potatoes with butter, cinnamon, or sugar, like most Southern recipes dictate, her response was “just taste it— you’ll see that you don’t need it!” Sure enough, after trying the farm fresh, nutrient-packed potato, the teacher agreed.

This year, Burke County is participating in the Georgia Department of Agriculture program: Feed my School, which challenges districts to locally source 70% of their food for one week. The food service team has been stockpiling local apples, eggs, beef, chicken, strawberries, peaches, blueberries, oats, and corn on the cob in anticipation of the event. “We’re going to make it a big expo, with a cow milking station, piglets, beehives, earthworm farms, and aquaponic lettuce booths,” Martin enthusiastically explains. 

The commitment to local provides the opportunity for fun nutrition learning environments, which prove that the more kids know about their food, the better the chances are of them establishing lifelong healthy eating habits. Farmers are regularly invited to the schools to talk about their harvests, and nutrition fact cards are placed on the lunch tables every day, telling students about the day’s produce— where it comes from, what it looks like, and how it grows. “They get off the bus in the morning and rush to the cafeteria to see what fruits and vegetables they’re getting that day—and they really do read about them!

From the Mouths Being Fed

Martin’s school meal program is an undeniable success, and we don’t just have her word to go by; average daily participation in the program has doubled since the HHFKA standards were implemented, and students and teachers alike are singing Martin’s praises. As an example, she recounts a story told to her by one of her employees:

Waiting in line at a local Subway sandwich shop with her daughter and nephew one day, she heard her nephew ask for fresh spinach on his sandwich. When told that fresh spinach wasn’t an option there, his reply was “I love the fresh spinach we eat at school and I want it on my sandwich!” 

There are school districts all over the country with stories like Burke County’s. When given variety and choice, education, and scratch-cooked food, children are adapting seamlessly to the healthy lunch standards. It is stories like this, and the widespread public support of healthy food in schools that should be influencing Congress’ decision this fall, not the bottom lines of fast food companies or corporate lobbyists. As Martin has proven, children enjoy and benefit from fresh, nourishing meals at school.

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