Photo by Jeylin White
Arnold Elementary students were eager to eat lunch.
Kindergartners at Arnold Elementary School walked quietly in a single-file line into the school cafeteria on a sunny Tuesday. A few fidgeted, some rubbed their stomachs and licked their lips, salivating from the aromas that filled the lunchroom.
“No one is going to get fat eating school lunches.”
— Judy Hogg, director of school nutrition for Henry County Public Schools.
On the menu was: Chicken over rice, turkey and cheese sub, green beans, celery and carrot sticks, peach cup and fresh pears. To wash it down, varieties of milk — chocolate, strawberry, vanilla, lactose-free, or just plain vitamin D.
“It’s mmm, mmm, good to me,” said Marlon, an Arnold Elementary kindergartner filling his mouth with green beans.
That’s happening, not just at Arnold Elementary, but at Henry County Middle in McDonough, too.
“I really thought it was going to be a challenge,” said Tonya Battle, a nutrition assistant at Henry Middle. “But they are taking everything. We’ve never had to go back and cook more green beans. We do now.”
According to Henry and Clayton school officials, this year’s lunch menus are slightly different from last year.
Both counties had to update their menus as part of the required mandates of the United States Department of Agriculture which went into effect the beginning of the school year. School officials said the ‘New Meal Pattern’ is a key component of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.
“We are excited about the USDA New Meal Pattern changes that has taken place this school year,” said Audrey Hamilton, director of school nutrition for Clayton County Public Schools. “The school nutrition program has planned menus with more variety to meet the meal requirement.”
Those changes include: more whole grain-rich foods, more fruits and an increased variety of veggies, low-fat milk and fat-free milk choices, sodium reductions and trans-fat removal. As well as matching portion sizes with age groups.
“It’s always important for students to get the proper nutrition they need,” added Judy Hogg, director of school nutrition for Henry County Public Schools. “Students need the protein and grains to sustain them throughout the day.”
It’s not often you hear elementary students in favor of eating school lunches, especially if vegetables are in the equation. Brennen, another 5-year-old kindergartner at Arnold, was happy to be eating more veggies and fruit.
“It tastes better than my food at home,” said Brennen.
Meanwhile a small group of eighth-graders debated the benefits of the new school lunch menu at Henry County Middle School.
Hussain Raza, 13, declared he is willing to eat nearly anything he can microwave, while his friend, Elizabeth Duncan, prefers the more abundant fruit and vegetable choices.
“I don’t really like meat,” said Duncan, 13. “Usually, I like fruit and vegetables.”
“There are a lot more choices,” added Herbert Green, 13. “It tastes better, too.”
School nutrition assistants, Tonya McClain and Markysa Williams, are part of the crew who work daily to prepare lunch meals for the 760 students at Henry County Middle.
“They like it,” said McClain.
“They love the chicken sandwiches,” interjected Williams.
Their team of cooks includes fellow nutrition assistants, Battle and Lisa Holland, and school nutrition manager, Audrey Henry, who all agree that students have quickly adjusted to the new meal offerings.
Battle said students eat two ounces of chicken on their sliders now, compared to four ounces per sandwich in past years.
Henry pointed out that the lunchroom no longer fries foods. She said those things that were fried are now baked.
“They [the students] are happier and smiling, and there are clean plates,” said Kimberly Anderson, principal at Henry County Middle. “I agree with offering the healthier food. That is a major part of student achievement — that students have healthier bodies and healthier minds.
Hogg and Hamilton both agreed students who eat school lunches will not only receive the proper nutrition but will also help tackle the childhood obesity epidemic seen across the state.
“No one is going to get fat eating school lunches,” said Hogg. “If you look at the portion sizes in school lunches, there’s not a lot of calories.”
Both school systems go by a process called, Offer vs. Serve, which means students are allowed to choose food items from menu they wish to eat, and then they are served. However, Offer vs. Serve is not something implemented in elementary schools in Henry County, said Hogg.
Hogg and Hamilton said posters are hung in the school cafeteria’s with a list of nutritional values. They said the posters are vital because it will help the student to make healthier choices.
“We call it a learning laboratory,” said Hamilton.
When it comes to planning the school menu for the year, Hogg and Hamilton adhere to different strategies.
Hamilton said her and co-worker Alice Riley, district coordinator and nutritionist, gather a committee of teachers, students, board members and parents who taste the foods and decide what food items will be ideal for students.
“We really try to keep the best interest of students at heart and serve food we know they will like,” said Riley.
However, Hogg doesn’t need a panel. She said she has been with the Henry school system long enough to know what students like.
“After being here 31 years, I have seen a lot and children all seem to eat the same general way,” said Hogg. “Most kids like anything in a bun or pizza.”
She also added many students like chicken sandwiches or chicken fingers.
“Students like to pick things up with their hands and like they also like foods that are smooth in texture,” she said.
Hamilton said the Clayton county school system served 11 million meals last year, while in Henry Hogg said they served 4.5 million meals — about 25,000 per week.
Daily Herald staff writer Johnny Jackson contributed to this article.