Hamilton County Schools to end holiday meals for families

photo Carolyn Childs, director of school nutrition

Hamilton County Schools will no longer invite family and community members to school cafeterias for holiday meals.

A favorite tradition at many elementary schools, the holiday meals will only be offered to teachers and students as the school system seeks to stay in compliance with new federal meal regulations.

The change appears to be an unintended consequence of new rules in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which requires school lunches to meet strict daily and weekly guidelines on calories, fats, grains and meats. The U.S. Department of Agriculture regulates all school breakfast and lunch services that participate in federal free and reduced-price lunch programs.

Schools used to choose if and when to hold their own Thanksgiving or winter holiday meals, which were attended by as many as 400 guests. This year, the entire system will get a turkey dinner with all the fixings on Nov. 13 and a glazed ham meal on Dec. 12. But those meals are for students and staff only.

"There are just so many nuances to this new meal pattern," said Carolyn Childs, director of school nutrition. "It's very difficult to implement."

Childs said it is difficult to predict how many families or community members will show up for the holiday meals. A school might cook 300 extra turkey dinners and have only 200 adults show up, she said.

But the USDA discourages the serving of leftovers and, just like at home, a big Thanksgiving meal usually produces lots of leftovers at school cafeterias. Cafeteria leftovers are tricky because, if served consecutive days, the items can throw off a school's weekly menu, causing it to go over allotments for grains, fats or meats.

If schools serve meals that exceed limits, the school system could lose hundreds of thousands of federal dollars because of an upcoming audit of cafeterias.

The state will soon audit Hamilton County school cafeterias on behalf of the USDA to make sure meal patterns are in compliance with new regulations. If the school system isn't found in compliance, it could lose the extra 6 cents per meal it gets to help implement the new and much more expensive standards. Childs said that comes to about $220,000 annually.

The decision to end the holiday meal tradition wasn't made lightly, she said.

"I know that parents are disappointed," she said. "Principals are disappointed. Teachers are disappointed. Even some of our managers are disappointed because they enjoyed showing off their cooking skills."

Nolan Elementary School Cafeteria Manager Brenda Camp said holiday meals "can be hectic because you're constantly running. But you really enjoy seeing and talking to the parents."

Julie Saunders, whose daughter attends Hixson Elementary School, said she had enjoyed some special school meals in the past, but she didn't see the change as a big loss.

She said she's more concerned about poorer families because the holiday lunch might have been one of their only decent meals together.

"It would be something fun, but I can live without it," she said.

Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at khardy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249.