It’s lunchtime at Blakeney Elementary School in Burke County, just 35 miles south of Augusta. More than 800 students are buzzing with excitement, thanks to our school nutrition changes.
Each day our cafeteria team members take pride in our lunch participation rate – more than nine out of 10 of our students eat our cafeteria lunches. That’s just one statistic that illustrates the hard work our staff puts into serving students healthy meals and that our kids are eating our healthy school lunches.
That’s why I was so surprised to hear Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue recently dust off the antiquated excuse that “kids won’t eat healthy food” when he moved to delay the enactment of school nutrition standards. And when Perdue specifically claimed kids won’t eat whole grains, I had to wonder where he’s getting his information.
He’s certainly not talking about the schools I’ve visited! At our school, participation spikes to 99 percent on cheese grits day. We serve affordable, whole-grain grits that our local farmers provide. Cheese grits day is the day here in Burke County.
In my years of working to improve school nutrition – and from my view on the frontlines of implementing school nutrition standards in Burke County public schools – I see a very different picture from the one Perdue is painting. The kids I interact with every day pile collard greens on their trays, right next to whole-grain rolls, fresh strawberries (from the patch just down the road) and two other fresh fruit or vegetable options.
What we love even more is that we’re improving nutrition outside the school, too. After years of serving whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables, I regularly see our students, parents and teachers at a farmers’ market, purchasing the same produce from the local farmers who are critical in making our healthy Farm to School efforts a success.
As soon as Congress passed the Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010, the Burke County public school team hit the ground running. We knew how important it was to find the best ways to serve our children and local community as we transitioned to more nutritious meal options. We’ve partnered with many organizations to make these nutritious meals a success, including the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, The Charlie Cart Project, Georgia SHAPE Grant, Fuel Up to Play 60 and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, Summer Food Service Program, Supper Program and Farm to School programming.
All that hard work and networking has paid off. Our schools across the county are having great success in providing students with healthier meals and snacks before, during and after school. We’re delivering on our promise to serve students nutritious food to fuel their growing brains and bodies.
Providing students with appealing, nutritious meals takes dedication and commitment. However, when they receive adequate support, school leaders are eager to make changes; students are enthusiastic about healthier meals; and parents are supportive of healthy changes.
I am proud that the Burke County Public School District is committed to strong nutrition standards and serving high-quality, appealing meals. I’d like to see every school in America duplicate the success we’ve had. Implementing the national school nutrition standards without delay is an important first step.
With so many health issues in our country, now is not the time for decision makers in Washington, D.C., to reverse or stall this achievement. We need leaders such as Perdue to support school efforts so that more school districts in Georgia and across the country can enjoy similar successes.
In the meantime, with school back in session, I’d be delighted to show Perdue around our lunchroom any time he’d like to visit. Of course, I strongly recommend he aim for cheese grits day.
The writer is president of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and the director of the School Nutrition Program for the Burke County Public School District.