By Curt Yeomans
When asked about their favorite school-lunch meals, Mt. Zion Elementary School fifth-graders, Vanessa Alele and Jada Norris, teetered on the verge of a minor argument at the lunch table on Tuesday.
It came down to an issue of spaghetti versus chicken tenders.
"I like the spaghetti because it tastes very nice, especially the sauce they use, which has a good flavor," Alele said.
"Whatever. The chicken tenders they serve here are the best chicken tenders ever," Norris said.
School lunchrooms across the country are celebrating the School Nutrition Association's National School Lunch Week this week. The official theme for this year's National School Lunch Week is "All-Star School Lunch."
At Mt. Zion Elementary School, nutrition workers put up orange banners and green and yellow balloons in the serving line areas on Tuesday, and handed out blue and white "All-Star School Lunch" stickers to students as they purchased their meals.
A National School Lunch Week sign, displaying pictures of basketballs, baseballs, soccer balls and footballs, was also hung up in the lunchroom.
"It's a big promotion to get children to eat healthier foods," Mt. Zion Elementary School Cafeteria Manager Amy Puckett said. "It makes them aware of the need for developing healthy eating habits."
Clayton County Public Schools' Nutrition Services Department is charged with making sure the school system's more than 50,000 students have breakfast and lunch options that meet federal and state nutrition regulations every day, school system Nutrition Services Director Audrey Hamilton said.
Hamilton said the school system uses a three-week meal rotation, with each meal consisting of a meat (or meat substitute item), fruits and vegetables, a bread item, and milk. She said it's important to provide students with a balanced meal so they won't be distracted by hunger in the classroom.
"It's hard to focus on your school work when you're hungry, and your stomach is growling," Hamilton said.
A 2,000-calorie daily diet should include six to eight servings of grains; four to five servings of vegetables; four to five servings of fruits; two to three servings of fat-free or low-fat milk products; six, or fewer, servings of lean meats, poultry and fish, and two to three servings of fats and oils, according to the "Dietary Guidelines for Americans" produced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in 2005.
The menus, and nutritional values, for each school level can be found on the Clayton County Public Schools web site, under the Nutrition Services Department heading.
On Tuesday, students at Mt. Zion Elementary School, like their counterparts all over elementary schools in the county, got to choose from three meals for lunch. Those meals were chicken over rice, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich plate, or a ham hoagie. Side items included pickles, green peas, watermelon chunks, Mandarin orange slices, homemade yeast rolls, Jell-O, and a variety of chips and yogurts.
"I definitely like the lunches they serve here," fifth-grader Norris said. "It has a good flavor to it, and it's almost like the food my mom makes."
Alele added, "I like the lunches because we have different varieties that we can choose from."
In a written statement issued on Monday, state Superintendent of Schools Kathy Cox called on Georgia residents to show their gratitude to school nutrition workers this week.
"This week, please take a moment to thank those that make school lunches possible, especially the caring individuals in the schools that prepare and serve food to our students each day," Cox said. "Send your child's school nutrition staff a note to express your appreciation, or stop by and have lunch at your child's school to show your support."
Alfred Paul, a police officer with the Forest Park Police Department, has already visited Mt. Zion's lunchroom. He said he comes to the school when he gets an opportunity, to eat lunch with his son, fifth-grader Chance, and his daughter, third-grader Dakota.
"The food's good - real good actually," Alfred Paul said. "It's a lot better than the lunches they served when I was in school ... I'm very glad they are making sure my children are getting nutritious meals. It helps with their growth. They get everything they need to be healthy at lunch."