School cafeterias feed young minds and bodies

School cafeterias feed young minds and bodies

August 8th, 2012 by Mike O'Neal in Local Regional News

One of the things students look forward to when they return to school after a summer break takes place outside the classroom or playground.

This universal highlight of the school day does not involve teachers, paraprofessionals or coaches.

"Meals are incorporated into the school curriculum and it is nice to hear students tell us that lunch is a favorite subject," said Michelle Coker, coordinator for the nutrition programs at all 14 Walker County public schools. "It [breakfast and/or lunch] is an important part of their day."

Those meals - nearly 2 million of which were served last year - are result of "lunch ladies" dedicated to making certain young minds and bodies have energy to burn, and learn.

"My philosophy is since we start their day, let's start it right," Coker said. "We are often the first smiling faces they see."

This summer the Georgia Department of Education, for the third consecutive year, recognized the local school system's food and nutrition service for exceptionally high participation in breakfast and lunch programs. Walker County's percentages are among the highest in the state and the nation.

Rossville Middle topped the list with 95 percent of its students eating school lunches. Chattanooga Valley and Naomi elementary schools had 94 percent participation, and at Gilbert Elementary 92 percent of its students partake of the school's lunches.

The state average is that 75 percent of students eat the daily lunch offered in public schools.

"I am excited about the recent achievements and future possibilities associated with our Child Nutrition program here in Walker County," schools Superintendent Damon Raines said. "We are committed to assuring that every child we serve receives a well-balanced and nutritious meal served with a smile and encouraging word every day."

Participation in school breakfast programs is also high in Walker County.

Cherokee Ridge Elementary had the highest number of students, 89 percent, eating school breakfast daily, which is more than double the state rate.

Gilbert Elementary reported 71 percent of its youngsters having breakfast at school, followed closely by Naomi and Stone Creek having 70 percent of their students eating a school breakfast to start the day.

Coker said this will be the third year that every school will offer "Breakfast on the Go," a program that allows students to have the first meal of the day inside their classrooms.

"Breakfast provides a good start to the day, both for nutrition and as social time; it helps get talking out of their system," she said. "It truly cuts down absenteeism and disciplinary problems."

Coker's appraisal of school nutrition programs mirror a statewide study in Maryland that found having meals at school reduced student absenteeism, tardiness and discipline problems.

Having 27 years' experience as a family consumer science (formerly known as a home economics) teacher and seven years as a nursing home adminstrator, Coker said she is familiar with the challenges of meeting the needs of so many with a limited budget.

Incorporating fresh vegetables and fruits into the daily diet, monitoring meals to accommodate specific medical requirements and meeting federal nutritional guidelines is difficult. Coker said an even harder task involves offering meals that appeal to diverse ages and tastes.

"There is not need to prepare it if they won't eat it," she said. "Our menus are always planned to include things that students will want to eat."

Coker said the 134 employees who prepare meals in the system's 14 schools are committed to helping children learn good eating habits that will last a lifetime.

"We are helping kids learn that a colorful plate, one with fruits and vegetables, is a good plate," she said. "We really are like missionaries preaching the gospel of good food every day."

Raines said administrators, teachers and staff understand the relationship between meeting a child's basic nutritional needs and maximizing their academic achievement.

"This collaborative effort is the foundation and building block to support our mission, 'To ensure all students graduate 'Ready for College, Ready for Work, Ready for Life!'" he said. "Ms. Coker and her staff are shining examples of the dedication and care evident throughout the Walker County School System."