Parents may notice a gradual change in the school menus after the New Year as cafeterias focus on ways to make student meals healthier.
Currently, the school system follows national guidelines and makes sure meals contain less than 30 percent fat as recommended by the U. S. Department of Agriculture, said Bernard Milligan, director of school nutrition services.
But officials brainstormed on ways to offer even healthier meals that children would still enjoy.
Beginning in January, cafeterias will be baking more items, such as chicken and French fries, and will be offering some healthy alternatives such as "smart pizza," a low fat version, Mr. Milligan said.
School officials discussed making the menu healthier while maintaining a strong participation in the meal program. The statistics change each month, but numbers for November showed participation in the lunch program varied in the elementary schools and middle school from 81 to 90 percent. The previous month it varied from 78 to 97 percent. Figures show participation at the high school level to be about 60 percent each month for lunch.
The meals must be tasty to the children in order for them to want to eat cafeteria meals, school officials agreed.
"If they don't like it, they won't eat it," School Board Member Georgia Hobbs said.
Baking instead of frying all foods will present some challenges to cafeteria staff, but it could be done, Mr. Milligan said. Board Chairman Tommy Phelps suggested finding a reasonable balance when transitioning from fried to baked foods and when introducing alternative items.
Board Member Nether Ivery -- a restaurateur -- wants to concentrate efforts at the elementary school level in order to introduce healthy food choices while the children are still young.
"If we can teach the young kids (healthy habits), we pretty much have the game beat," he said.
Cost can play a part in the menu planning as well. The Department of Agriculture provides some food items free of charge which the system uses to control the expense of meals. The Agriculture Department, for example, recently provided free flour, cheese, and hamburger, Mr. Milligan said. The system uses those items to keep costs down, but applies methods to control fat content such as rinsing cooked ground beef before adding it to recipes.
When planning menus, fresh fruits and vegetables are incorporated into the meal plan, a technique the Board agreed was healthy. However, the cost of these items fluctuates and can be high during the winter. For example, the cost of tomatoes has increased from $18.95 per case in September to $50.95 in December, according to invoices Mr. Milligan provided to the board.
All Georgia public schools, including those in McDuffie County, are held to nutritional standards, according to the Georgia Department of Education website. The lunch meal must contain 30 percent of the Recommended Dietary Allowances.