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Forsyth County Schools' nutrition director lobbies in D.C. for school meal funding
SchoolNutrition17 5 WEB
Students at Cumming Elementary eat lunch in the cafeteria Thursday. - photo by Micah Green

Representatives from Forsyth County who lead the charge in feeding public school students met with U.S. lawmakers last week to discuss their legislative priorities and concerns regarding school nutrition programs and funding.

The meeting between members of Congress and about 900 school nutrition professionals from across the nation was an effort by the School Nutrition Association (SNA) to lobby the opposition of block granting school meals and to support the financial stability of school meal programs, said Valerie Bowers, school nutrition program director for Forsyth County Schools.

Bowers said the SNA, a national nonprofit that represents 57,000 school nutrition professionals and is dedicated to making healthy school meals and nutrition education accessible, holds an annual meeting to give workshops on what bills pass.

“On the last day, we go and visit with our legislators and talk about our program and give them information about how we run and just kind of give them boots on the ground,” she said.

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Block granting school meal funding

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The main focus of the meeting – with south Forsyth’s U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall (R-GA-7) and U.S. Rep Tom Graves (R-GA-14) was to warn against any potential legislation to create school meal block grants, which would put a fixed sum of money into Boards of Education’s general funds, who would then distribute it to schools.

“There’s no concern about what [our BOE] would do here in Forsyth, but the issue is if we had a downturn in the economy, our funds would not increase to meet that need,” Bowers said. “It would be difficult to feed students as we go through different economic stages.”

No current legislation would enact such a rule – there has only been talk of a bill.

“We were proactive and let them know we don’t think that’s a good idea,” said Bowers, who traveled to the Capitol with Dee Mathis, food service manager at Sharon Elementary School, and April Cox, cafeteria manager at Lambert High School.

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Maintaining nutritional content levels

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They also voiced support of continued meal program flexibility, specifically certain nutritional contents in what they feed students.

“Starting in July, we’re required to lower our sodium content again. We are having to do it in three tiers: the first one in 2014, this one in 2017, and I guess another in 2020,” Bowers said. “We saw a decrease in our participation after the first reduction.”

Forsyth County cafeterias are already healthier than many in Georgia. They already provide a fruit option at every meal. They have gardens on many campuses. They use low-fat dairy and other items.

“When you represent a community like ours that leads by example, it makes the message of local control speak that much louder in Washington,” Woodall said. “No matter the issue – and school nutrition is a crucial one – we come from a place where excellence is already the standard and expertise is the norm.”

The SNA’s goal is not to ask to nix the sodium monitoring. They want to remain at the level schools are at now – the 2014 level – and not have to reduce it a second or third time.

Cheese, for example, naturally has sodium. Without a natural level, it does not melt easily and the texture becomes off.

“When you reduce so much fat and sodium, you have to add some other things to make it palatable and functional,” Bowers said. “Right now we’re at the point where it works. If we have to go to another decrease, it’s going to be very difficult.”

School nutrition programs often buy from brand names, and there is also a concern that those companies will not want to make a different product than they sell commercially or in stores just for schools. Products may become more expensive and harder to find.

“The biggest challenge is finding something the kids want to eat that is also nutritious,” Bowers said. “When they don’t want to eat what we provide, we lose participation. Eventually, that’s losing jobs, hour get cut. At some point, you have to look at what you’re serving.”

From 2014 until the end of last school year, Forsyth County’s school meal program participation dropped by 16 percent.

“Overall, since the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act that [then-First Lady] Michelle Obama put into place, it started in 2012, we’ve lost 20 percent. They’re required to choose a fruit or a vegetable, and our kids don’t want to be wasteful, so if they don’t want a fruit they just don’t eat with us that day,” Bowers said.

The district has a 42 percent participation in meal programs. Bowers said that is low for Georgia.

“Also, we’re going to have to have 100 percent whole grains in our meals,” she said. “Before, it was 50 percent. Like our pizza crust didn’t have to be 100 percent whole grain, or our breading in our chicken tenders. We don’t want all white grains and flours, but we want the flexibility to have some.

“It has impacted our program, and it makes it difficult for us to have meals for our kids.”

Woodall said federal mandates, “while often well-meaning, frequently have unintended and even negative consequences. Working closely with our local leaders is how we reach the balance needed to achieve our shared goals.”