Dozens of kindergarteners lined up in the cafeteria at Alexander II Magnet School, eyeing their lunch options. On the menu that Tuesday, the students could choose between chicken patty sandwiches, spaghetti with meat sauce and an array of fruits and vegetables.
A stack of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches sat tucked away between whole wheat rolls and to-go boxes of Asian chicken salad. Bibb County offers the sandwiches as a supplement to the regular menu every day at lunch, but staff are asked not to widely advertise that to students.
At a table in the back corner of the lunch room, five kids giggled between bites of food. They were all eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and cherry-flavored yogurt.
Cucumbers, carrots and baked sweet potato fries also filled the compartments of students’ plastic lunch trays, but they sat mostly untouched.
One student slurped down a fruit cup and others chomped on fresh red apples. But as they lined up once more to toss their leftovers before recess, piles of uneaten veggies got dumped in the trash.
It’s not easy to prepare meals for children that are both tasty and nutritious. And in a district that served an average of 18,000 lunches daily last school year, there are a lot of factors to consider.
“It’s very difficult to meet the nutrition challenges because what children want sometimes, and even adults, doesn’t always meet what we call the meal patterns,” said Timikel Sharpe, executive director of nutrition for the district.
About 20 percent of school-aged youth in the U.S. are obese, according to the CDC. In Georgia, 32 percent of 10- to 17-year-olds are overweight or obese. Such high rates often are linked to lack of access to nutritional foods. In a state that ranks ninth in terms of food hardship, according to the Food Research and Action Center, nearly 19 percent of households with children struggle to afford quality food to feed their families.
Enough Bibb County students face food hardship that the school district qualifies for a program that makes all school meals free. But a federal bill could cause the district to lose its ability to feed all students without charge.
Kids could go hungry
Feeding students is no simple task.
The Bibb County School District, like all public school systems, is subject to U.S. Department of Agriculture nutrition standards, which dictate minimums and maximums for calories, sodium, saturated fat, and even the number of red and dark green vegetables students consume.
On top of that, Sharpe and her team are expected to develop a menu that doesn’t exceed a cost of $1.82 per student for lunch, 80 cents for breakfast and 58 cents for snacks.
For just under a dollar or two, the district’s nutrition department then has to piece together food combinations that please students and parents while also fulfilling all of the USDA guidelines.
“If at the end of the day, we put five items together or five components together, but it’s over in sodium, then we have to go back to the drawing table and start again,” Sharpe said.
To stay within those parameters, the district puts out bids to different vendors and compares nutrition information, taste and, above all, price.
“We look at pricing before we even put something on to be bid on by multiple vendors,” Sharpe said.
Bibb County schools’ nutrition department received $21.5 million for fiscal 2019, most of which comes from the state and federal government. Though it might seem like a lot of money, it needs to cover hundreds of thousands of meals throughout the year, as well as the salaries of 300 employees.
But Sharpe is determined not to put any financial burden on the students and their families.
Since 2014, the district has been able to serve breakfast and lunch to all students free of cost, through the Community Eligibility Provision, a federal program for schools where at least 40 percent of students automatically qualify for free school meals.
The initiative is linked to the direct certification program, which allows school districts that participate in the National School Lunch program to directly certify children whose households rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or other assistance agencies for free meals at school, without having to submit an application.
But Sharpe said the district’s free meal program could be threatened if the new U.S. Farm Bill passes with some restrictions that might impact the number of Bibb County residents who qualify for SNAP.
A version of the bill that passed in the House of Representatives in June could result in the loss of SNAP benefits for some, said Diane Pratt-Heavner, director of media relations for the School Nutrition Association. The House bill would bolster eligibility requirements, which could affect the eligibility of about 400,000 households, the Congressional Budget Office estimates.
If enough Bibb County families with school-aged children lost their SNAP benefits, the district would no longer qualify for the federal program that allows it to offer free meals for all of its students. Sharpe said families would instead have to apply for free or reduced-price meals, a process that often results in students falling through the cracks.
It’s nearly impossible to get a 100 percent return rate on applications, Sharpe said. And students who don’t qualify for free meals don’t always come to school with the cash they need to buy breakfast or lunch.
“We can only allow them so many meals without paying,” Sharpe said. “And then we have to then, you know, have a whole discussion with the district as to how do we handle that situation.”
Otherwise, kids could go hungry.
The Senate version of the Farm Bill doesn’t include the same changes to SNAP as the House bill. Now it’s up to members of the two chambers of Congress to come together and reconcile the differences between the two proposals.
Both Republican Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts and Democratic Senate Agriculture ranking member Debbie Stabenow have said that the Senate would not pass a final version of the bill with the SNAP restrictions proposed by the House.
But Sharpe said she’ll be watching the political developments closely.
“We are very, very motivated to see what’s going to happen with the final piece of the farm bill,” she said.
Losing the Community Eligibility Provision would likely decrease the number of students who get meals at school. Schools that adopted the program in its pilot stages saw an increase in breakfast participation of 9.4 percent, as well as a lunch participation increase of 5.2 percent, according to a USDA study.
“CEP and Direct Cert(ification) is critical for Bibb County School District,” Sharpe said.
In neighboring Houston County, 16 of the district’s 38 public schools offer free meals to all students. Since the district implemented the Community Eligibility Provision in those schools for the 2013-14 school year, both breakfast and lunch participation have increased dramatically, said Beth McLaughlin, director of community and school affairs for Houston County. She added that schools with the Community Eligibility Provision serve more meals than schools without the program.
Nourishment impacts academic success
As the Farm Bill makes its way through the legislative process, Sharpe has enough pots on the stove to keep her busy.
At about nine in the morning on a school day, she wove through bulk-sized boxes of cereal and canned goods at the district’s central kitchen on Riverside Drive. In one corner of the industrial kitchen, the scent of fresh-baked blueberry muffins emanated from metal drying racks, while aromas of garlic and tomato wafted from a 100-gallon kettle mixing pasta sauce in another.
Feedings tens of thousands of students each day takes a lot of work and close attention to detail. Recipes have to be followed strictly to every teaspoon so as not to violate nutrition guidelines. But all of the planning and cooking and packaging can have a big impact on students’ live.
Sharpe said it’s important for students to have healthy breakfast and lunch options at school because she doesn’t know what they might be eating when they go home.
“We have an opportunity because we have them with us, you know, seven or eight hours a day,” she said. “We have an opportunity to feed them more nutritious food.”
Proper nourishment in school can also impact students’ academic success. A few years ago, several Bibb County schools introduced a new program that provides kids with breakfast in their first class each morning, and Sharpe said she’s already noticed a change in students’ performance. In schools where students get breakfast in their classrooms, she said participation has gone up, and visits to the nurse’s office for stomach aches have gone down.
“The breakfast program is critical to helping to provide the nutrients to start the brain cells and the body working again in the morning before they get to start trying to learn and all they can think about is, ‘I’m kind of hungry,’ ” Sharpe said.
On an assembly line in the central kitchen, Candace Riggins packed banana muffins, all-natural grape juice and bright orange cheese sticks into plastic boxes. She said the “grab and go” breakfasts would help students concentrate in class in the morning. Hungry kids, she said, have trouble paying attention.
“But a good, fed child,” Riggins said, “is always happy and ready to work.”
Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member and reports for The Telegraph with support from the News/CoLab at Arizona State University. Follow her on Facebook at facebook.com/samantha.max.9 and on Twitter @samanthaellimax. Learn more about Report for America at www.reportforamerica.org.