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Better school lunch benefits kids today and tomorrow
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School lunches in Dawson County arent what they used to be. And thats a good thing, according to Linda Byrd.

As director of school nutrition for Dawson County Schools, Byrd has provided the leadership behind a complete overhaul of menus, cooking methods and attitudes over the past several years at the countys one high school, two middle schools and four elementary schools.

Todays lunchrooms routinely offer dark-green, leafy vegetables, like sweet raw spinach, Romaine lettuce and broccoli; orange vegetables and fruits, such as sweet potatoes and squashes, carrots, oranges and cantaloupe; protein-rich beans and a variety of whole grains. Fruits and vegetables are usually fresh and, when available, locally grown. The canned goods occasionally served typically have reduced sodium contents and little or no sugar added.

Frying is out altogether, except for french fries, which are being phased out gradually, beginning in the elementary schools.

Since pediatricians recommend skim or low-fat milk after the age of 2, whole and 2 percent milks are no longer offered. Flavored low-fat milks are offered on the premise that the calcium benefits outweigh the added sugar for kids who might not otherwise drink milk at all. And ice cream treats have to meet low-fat, sugar and calorie counts to be available for purchase.

Nutritious breakfasts also are offered at all the schools. Both meals are available free of charge or at reduced prices for children whose families meet income eligibility criteria.

Overall, Byrd says, students are responding well to the changes incorporated over the past few years. Some of the greens, the squashes and sweet potatoes continue to be a hard sell, but the Romaine lettuce and spinach are doing well in salads. And students like fruit. Fruits not a problem. They eat lots of it, she says.

The real impetus for change came in 2009, Byrd recalls, when school systems learned about nutrition guideline changes on the horizon, to be announced in 2012. Dawson County Schools saw no reason to wait. Input from health, fitness and nutrition professionals, social service organizations, educators, parents and others in the community was rolled into a system-wide Wellness Policy. Wellness teams were established at each school. Collaboration with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation and participation in its Healthy Schools Program led to new ideas for creating healthful environments for children to learn in.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture began incentivizing schools to go the extra mile in their nutrition and fitness programs through the HealthierUS School Challenge. Blacks Mill Elementary School took the lead in Dawson County, earning a Bronze Award in 2009 and a Silver Award in 2011. Robinson Elementary, Kilough Elementary and Riverview Middle School all earned Bronze Awards in 2011.

The meal program changes have required some sacrifices.

It takes a lot longer to bake chicken tenders for 700 kids than to fry them, Byrd says, noting the cafeteria staff has the same amount of time as before to prepare foods and get students fed. Our kitchens were built for a different type of food preparation, so we really need some different equipment, like more steamers, today.

The new, more healthful menus add about 40 cents to each plate served, Byrd says. The schools lose money on every meal. To help meet the challenges of these higher expenses, the school system leverages the buying power of participation in a regional food cooperative. Some kitchen positions had to be cut, as well, putting more pressure on staff to do more with less.

Fortunately, we have excellent managers who are well-trained and have the skills and experience to make it all work, Byrd says.

The progress weve made has definitely been the result of a team effort. It takes cooperation and support from everybody to implement changes. But were all very concerned to see so many overweight children today. Making changes that can help kids have healthier futures is worth the effort.

If thats a contribution I can make for the students, she says, I want to do that. I will do that for them.

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