Almost 30,000 students were expected to come to Houston County public schools Monday.
Meredith Potter said more than 20,000 came expecting to have a good meal as part of their days.
It’s Potter’s job, along with her staff, to make sure those students get fed.
Potter, Houston County’s director of school nutrition, said it takes diligent planning and preparation.
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“The process starts in January or February when we start creating menus for next school year,” she said. “We begin creating meals and menus for each age group -- elementary, middle and high school -- then start looking for the items that will meet the needs of those menus.”
Potter said coming up with menus is a collaborative effort among school lunchroom managers and her office. She said it even involves taste tests by students of potential new items.
When menus are finalized, bids are sought from vendors. Potter said nationwide, school lunchrooms are considered the largest restaurant chain there is, serving 30 million kids a day.
In Houston County, getting food for students means things such as buying more than 600,000 apples and more than 10,000 cases of hot wings a year, distributing more than 4 million servings of milk and spending nearly $750,000 on produce.
That’s just for fresh produce, and doesn’t include the canned and frozen vegetables they buy.
Potter said vendors bring food to county warehouses for later delivery as well as straight to the 37 schools with kitchens.
Then, the food is prepared and served by the county’s more than 375 food service staff members.
One of the new items on high school menus this year originated last year at Perry High School where Regina Williamson is lunchroom manager and where they expect to feed 1,000 students a day this year.
Williamson said the new item is pulled-pork barbecue on baked fries. It was a big hit at Perry High, along with other staples loved by what she calls the “fast-food generation,” such as chicken nuggets with ranch and hot sauces.
And of course, those hot wings.
Williamson, a 12-year lunchroom veteran, said preparations for the new year have gone remarkably well. She said in addition to food prep, she and her staff work to make the school’s lunchroom a friendly, social place students can enjoy.
She said they need that.
Potter said the biggest overall change in food services this year countywide involves a federal free meals program.
She said the program goes beyond the usual free meals to specific low-income families to providing free breakfasts and lunches to entire qualifying schools.
She said there are 16 qualifying schools in the county.
“It’s called the Community Eligibility Provision, or CEP,” she said. “It’s part of the National School Lunch Program and it’s for every student in the 16 schools. A big part of it is that students are given breakfast in the hall or lobby as soon as they walk into the school -- they won’t have to go to the lunchroom.”
She said the breakfasts are “portable” and can be handed to students and eaten right away or carried to classrooms. They can even be saved for recess or later in the day.
The breakfast include such items as juices, milk, cereal bars, fruit, breakfast biscuits and other entrees.
Athena Richardson, of Centerville Elementary School, has been a lunchroom manager for only two years, though she said she trained in a county program as an assistant manager and prior to that was a Waffle House district manager.
Her school is one of the new CEP schools.
“I’m sure the new program will increase the number of students we serve each day for lunch and definitely for breakfast,” she said. “There are about 650 students at Centerville and I think we’ll go from feeding about 89 percent like last year to probably up around 97 percent this year with CEP. We only fed about half the school last year at breakfast so I know that will really grow now we’re in the hallway encouraging every child to pick one up. And we’re doing it all in about 45 minutes when the children are getting to school. That’s creating a storage problem but we’re working it out. We’re also getting new breakfast kiosks but they haven’t gotten here yet. We’re making do until they arrive.”
And yes, Richardson said, the CEP program means forgetting lunch money and lunchroom cashiers are a thing of the past at CEP schools.
She said she expects the program will help improve grades and learning.
Potter said feeding children every day is a giant balancing act she and her staff are ready for again this year.
“In Houston County, we work diligently to balance federal nutrition guidelines with student preferences and cost concerns to give our students the best possible meals we can,” she said. “With the partnership of all our dietitians and lunchroom staff we’ll do it again this year and please our customers.”
Contact Michael W. Pannell at email@example.com.