As the Georgia Department of Education will happily tell you, more kids every day are fed in school lunchrooms than in McDonald's. And the price of a nutritious school lunch is lower than a Happy Meal, too.
This is Child Nutrition Employee Appreciation Week. It's a good time to recognize the value children receive in the school lunch program, and to thank the lunchroom workers who make it all happen.
One place in Columbia County where it's happening more than most is at Grovetown Middle School. The lunchroom run by manager Donna Sellers serves a higher percentage of its students than any other school in the county: A staggering 99 percent of the school's nearly 500 pupils get their lunch from the school cafeteria every day. The state average is just 75 percent.
What's Sellers' secret? "Donna's really good at what she does," says the school's principal, Carolyn Fries, who worked with Sellers at Harlem Middle School before both moved to Grovetown in 2003.
Sellers and her staff are creative with their ingredients, many of them USDA commodities, and offer a variety of entrees and side dishes for kids to choose from. "They tend to serve a lot of different items everyday, beyond the one or two," Fries said.
At Grovetown Middle, students are able to serve themselves from a cafeteria line that could hold its own with any restaurant buffet. The food is good, too. Columbia County's school cafeterias aren't places where lunchroom workers open giant-sized cans and glop the contents into steam trays; these are professional operations with experienced workers.
Jo Marie Lombard, coordinator of the county's school nutrition services, credits much of the improvement among school staff to the hard work of Rita McDonald. She is the president of the local chapter of the Columbia County Schools Food Services Association, the professional trade group of school nutrition workers.
This isn't just a lunchroom-ladies club; the organization helps recognize the dedicated but underpaid workers, while boosting their training and professional credentials. McDonald has helped raise the organization's profile, and many of the school system's principals have recognized its value by helping to pay their workers' dues.
Even with all the training, federal guidelines and health department regulations -- Columbia County's schools consistently score higher on cleanliness than area restaurants, by the way -- the main ingredient in a successful school nutrition program is still a caring attitude.
Sellers jokes that her program is so successful because her "babies are hungry," a perpetual state for middle-schoolers. But it says something about the comfort level -- and comfort food -- served every day when so many kids carry their trays to the table.
What it says is that the lunchroom ladies care about those kids coming through their lines. They know a well-fed child will learn better. Maybe it's no coincidence, then, that Columbia County's well-fed children also do better than any surrounding county on academic achievement.
This week is also Teacher Appreciation Week. While we're patting our educators on the back for filling pupils' heads with knowledge, be sure to say a few kind words for those lunchroom ladies filling kids' bellies with nutritious food, too.
A special note: Thanks to Grovetown Middle School sixth-graders Beverly Ferguson, Crystal Moore, Sara Scott, Aaron Tyson, Savannah Ford, Tiffany Taylor, Stephanie Rickerson and Jared Jennings for sharing their insight on their school's food service.
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