Six years ago, food service director extraordinaire, Linda Waters, kicked off her mission to serve up fresh fruits and veggies to Gilmer County Schools in Elijay, Georgia. This was not new territory for Waters, since she’d spent the previous two decades working in the school food industry, serving as food service director in Rockdale County and Decatur City Schools in Georgia; assistant director in Gwinnett County, Georgia; and as a school nutritionist in Louisville, Kentucky.
Waters’ goal for Gilmer County Schools was to begin centralized menus throughout the school district, implement an offer versus serve model, and increase school lunch participation. So, she dove right in, and immediately involved students in the menu creation, while also monitoring what they were eating.
“If you give children choices, you’re going to get better participation.”
- Number of kids enrolled at Gilmer County: 4,200
- Number of schools in district: 6
- Percentage who are free and reduced: 71%
- Kids’ favorite local produce: apples
Apples to Apples
Elijay is the apple-growing center of Georgia. Waters explains: “(I’ve) never seen a student body eat apples like they do…because they grew up here in Elijay.” True to their roots, the kids eat whole apples, applesauce, and sliced apples with cinnamon sugar sprinkled on top. Beyond their beloved hometown fruit, Waters is currently on the lookout to establish local partnerships for procuring tomatoes, lettuce, onions, and peppers.
Introducing Salad Bars
Waters took a unique approach when introducing salad bars to students by rolling out the program one grade at a time. This was a great tactic to mitigate potential roadblocks, and incrementally teach new grades. She also created a salad bar etiquette and hygiene action plan to use with the students before the salad bar arrived. This helped significantly to prepare the students for the coming salad bar. The intro went so well that Waters was able to teach a new grade every two days.
One little boy even proclaimed “this is the first time I’ve ever eaten salad!”
“A salad bar enabled us to offer more variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, and encourage students to consume new foods that they may not be familiar with.”
District and Media Relations
Gilmer County has a strong relationship with the local television station and newspaper outlets. Waters utilized this bond to market the new salad bar program to the community. Holding a plate piled high with vegetables, one student explained: “I like how you can design it how you want it—I like getting salad. You’re not eating a lot of junk food. It’s healthy stuff.” The community shared in Waters’ excitement about the new program, and Waters continued to plug the salad bar in the monthly menus that were distributed to the students’ families.
Power to the Roughage
Gilmer County now serves up a wide array of fresh fruits and vegetables, which make up a significant portion of the food offered. The students have also become miniature chefs, creating masterpieces from the multitude of options on the salad bar—like variations of “Ants on a Log” or peanut butter cracker accompaniments.
Waters’ diligence and passion has not gone unnoticed. The community has recognized her on several occasions for feeding hungry children, as well as starting their Seamless Summer program. They even created an award in her honor: The Angel Food Award, for serving hungry students in Gilmer County.
This year, Waters earned the Food Service Director of the Year Award and the Josephine Martin Award of Excellence by the Georgia School Nutrition Association.
*Credit for picture and select quotes goes to the Times-Courier.
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