Meeting Challenges and Encouraging Healthy Eating

September 04, 2013

A perspective on school food from Director of School Nutrition Cleta Long in Macon, Georgia.

All across the country, students are returning to school to find their lunches healthier than ever, with more fruits, vegetables and whole grains on their plates.

But even as school food becomes more nutritious, school food service directors still face challenges in encouraging students to make healthy choices. At Bibb County Public Schools in Macon, Georgia, Director of School Nutrition Cleta Long says the next challenge is giving students opportunities to identify, select and explore healthy foods outside of the cafeteria in the packed schedule of the school day. She says students may not even recognize healthy foods because they are not readily available at home, so she looks for opportunities to teach students about the importance of healthy eating.

In order to promote healthy choices, Long and her team provide knowledge to students through a variety of dynamic activities, including farm-to-school programming, chef demonstrations and promoting produce through a “Harvest of the Month” featured menu item.

One of the most effective strategies, however, has been the robust school garden program. School dining staff engages students through hands-on activities, including planting, harvesting and preparing items from the garden. Through the garden, the school dining staff builds relationships that encourage students to try new foods and make healthy choices.

Students have responded well to the changes, and Long reports that middle and high schoolers were enthusiastic about the larger servings of fruits and vegetables. She was pleasantly surprised with the reception to a new corn and bean dish one of the dining managers created. But perhaps the most notable surprise success stems from the school garden program, which is not only inspiring students to make healthier choices, but inspiring their parents as well.

“While at a school garden event, a parent who was viewing the students’ accomplishments in the gardens was overheard saying, ‘We can do this at home,’” Long says.

This year, Long says Bibb County will be adding to their health-promoting efforts through a number of exciting activities. She says she plans to introduce more “sample days” to encourage students to try new foods and offer feedback for future menu planning. In addition, Bibb County Schools will work with the Georgia Department of Agriculture’s “Feed My Schools for A Week” project, where students will eat a week of meals made from mostly locally grown produce and celebrate eating locally through activities, speakers and more.

And Long and her team are being acknowledged for their successes at the state and national levels. All 27 Bibb County elementary schools have been certified by the HealthierUS School Challenge, and in September, the district will receive the Georgia Best Practices Award and USDA Southeast Region Best Practices Award in two categories: Increasing Fruit and Vegetable Consumption and Increasing Participation.

In continuing this important work in the new school year, Long calls on the whole school community, including parents, teachers and school administrators, to set positive examples and help spread the message of the importance of healthy eating.

“In education we talk about always modeling the behaviors and skills that we want students to learn and emulate,” Long says. “Teachers and administrators should be positive role models when it concerns food at all times of the day, but especially at school meal times.  Kid learn what they live and what they are exposed to – – this includes food.”