Georgia District Teaches Community About Healthy School Food

Outreach and engagement efforts highlight good nutrition, other benefits

Georgia District Teaches Community About Healthy School Food

Dr. Linette Dodson is the director of school nutrition for Carrollton City Schools in Georgia. Over the past few years, the district has earned repeated national recognition for leading the charge in the evolution of healthier school meals. The Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project talked with Dodson about the changes she’s made to her school meal program and how she shares them with her community.

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Ninety-five percent of Georgia school districts serve lunches that meet the updated nutrition standards.

We enjoy exposing parents and our whole community to what we offer, and working to correct common misconceptions about school food.

Q: Your school meal program started introducing healthier food and beverages years before updated national standards took effect in 2012. Why was beginning so far in advance important to you?

A: As a registered dietitian, I’ve always tried to focus on providing healthy meals for our students. In 2005-06, we were watching the national trend toward healthier eating and heard that regulation changes were coming to the [National School Lunch Program]. I knew where the dietary guidelines were headed, so we started increasing whole-grain choices, including more fresh fruits and vegetables, and reducing sodium in our program. We re-evaluated our menus and gained student input from taste tests to learn how to prepare healthier meals that were kid tested and approved.

Implementing such changes in a gradual way is much better. It certainly made for a smooth transition in our district, where most kids—and adults too—didn’t realize they were eating healthier until they saw news stories about updated national standards.  

Q: Give us an example of the gradual changes you made to menus.

A: We knew it was likely that the next updates to the nutrition standards would require more whole grains. With that push, we began transitioning to as much whole-grain items as possible. We were trying to get to 50 percent whole grains to meet the Healthier U.S. School Challenge standards and what we guessed would be the first requirement of the new meal standard to come.

At first, finding the right products was a challenge. Being in the South, biscuits are very popular, and initially, the whole-grain versions on the market were not great. But our food suppliers worked with schools and developed recipes that are appetizing and better for students’ nutrition too. Another great example is pasta. My managers say the whole-grain pasta is even better for cooking because it doesn’t break down as easily as regular pasta, and the kids like it.

Q: When your school food changes captured more public attention, what kind of feedback did you hear?

A: Our students like the healthier choices, especially when we involve them in the selection process, and our parents are supportive of the changes. We encourage parents to come eat with their children so that they can see firsthand what we are serving and help inspire their kids to eat well.

On those occasions when a community member says something negative about a school lunch, I invite them to join us for a meal. We’ve hosted guests, ranging from local community officials to pediatricians to state officials, and have received great reviews from them all!

We enjoy exposing parents and our whole community to what we offer, and working to correct common misconceptions about school food.

Q: Have you reached out to the broader community, beyond inviting individual skeptics to lunch?

A: We rarely miss an opportunity to present on our meal program, because we want everyone to know what is happening in our schools. For the past three years, we hosted a spot at the “Taste of Carrollton” [a local restaurant tasting event], where we provide samples of foods we serve in our cafeterias. We want community members to see and taste the foods our schools are serving to their students. Kids will come up to our booth and point out the foods they’ve recently eaten, and parents are usually shocked—in a good way. We’ll give out 5,000 samples of different items and really just try to communicate to parents that school food is good food.

We take an active approach in our community. We attend after-school Title 1 meetings and athlete’s parent meetings to present on good nutrition. Our program tries to create a presence at local events, from farmer’s markets to hospital-sponsored events. We also reach out to parents and community members on social media to provide program information and promote the great food choices we offer and other healthy school initiatives. Posts including photos and student quotes always seem to be the most popular.

Q: Is farm-to-school a part of your program?

Yes! We received a USDA farm-to-school grant in 2013, so we looked into equipment upgrades and staff training that would support adding locally grown foods to our menus. With the grant funds, we purchased a commercial food processor for each of the schools, which helps with slicing and dicing fresh fruit and vegetables [in large quantities]. The schools in Carrollton City are very large, so this new equipment helped speed up our preparation process. We also purchased pass-through coolers and warmers, which gave the kitchens extra storage space for prepared foods and fresh local items.

We include something grown locally on our menus almost every day. Starting last year, our junior high school was selected as a Georgia test kitchen to help standardize recipes for the state’s Department of Agriculture and to share with other Georgia schools. We figure out how to make these recipes work well in school kitchens and taste test those recipes with our students to successfully incorporate locally inspired dishes into menus. These recipes are shared with other districts so they can also include Georgia-grown foods on their school menus.

Q: How can parents help?

A: They can look at the daily menu and teach their children about the good food options; and of course, they can encourage their children to make healthy choices. We’ve learned that introducing the foods we serve in the school cafeteria into children’s meals at home is also beneficial. We’ve recently incorporated the MealViewer app into our program, which helps us share menus, pictures, and nutrition information with parents to give them a better understanding of what foods are available to their kids with school meals. When parents expose their children to similar types of foods at home and encourage them to try new things, children are more willing to eat a variety of foods. The more times children see and are encouraged to try a food, the more likely they will be to eat it.