School system adding healthier options to students' meals

COVINGTON -- The school nutrition department at the Newton County School System is implementing new programs this year to help keep students healthy.

The program has introduced a new Fresh Fruits and Vegetables grant and a Grab and Go Breakfast program to increase meal participation and bring more healthy options to students.

The Georgia Department of Education recently awarded NCSS with a Fresh Fruits and Vegetables grant worth more than $33,000, and NCSS is implementing a program at Middle Ridge Elementary School this school year with the funds.

"The idea behind the grant program is to introduce students to fruits and vegetables that they may not have ever eaten or, if they have eaten it, they may not know what it was," said Jan Loomans, director of Operational Services at NCSS.

The grant will be used to fund snacks to students at Middle Ridge Elementary each day, often featuring a specific fruit or vegetable, like Georgia-grown tomatoes. She said the school nutrition department at NCSS provides educational materials for teachers to give to students while they are eating the fruits that are served four days per week and the vegetables being served one day per week.

"Items will be offered more than once to encourage students to keep trying a food that they may not like or be familiar with," Loomans said.

Middle Ridge Elementary is home to more than 560 students, of which 83 percent are in the free and reduced meal program.

NCSS hopes to involve more interested schools in the future upon availability of funds.

"We are allowed to apply (for the funds) one time each year, so no additional schools are under consideration at this time," Loomans said. "(Next year), we are allowed to apply for as many elementary schools as we think may qualify based on the percent of free and reduced price meals and will look at the schools with the highest numbers of free and reduced students during the spring of 2011."

Another school in NCSS also is piloting a program that the system hopes to expand in the future.

This year, Alcovy High School is piloting a Grab and Go Breakfast, which has school nutrition staff setting up two serving lines in separate hallways near the bus drop off points to provide a convenient and faster breakfast service for students.

"Grab and Go Breakfast takes the meals to locations outside the traditional serving areas to areas where the most students either gather to socialize or where they are coming into the building," Loomans said. "The menu is generally food that does not require a table or utensils to eat the food."

So far, participation has averaged more than 200 each day at Alcovy High.

Loomans said her department spent $6,850 for serving carts and computer stands for the new program.

"We used wireless computers that we already owned for the cash registers on the two lines," she said.

Alcovy school nutrition manager Jolynn Gill was not satisfied with the school's 12 percent breakfast participation last school year, so she and school Principal LaQuanda Brown discussed plans to help increase that. Loomans said offering a chicken biscuit every Thursday increased breakfast participation, and the Grab and Go program also has boosted participation.

NCSS last reported that more than 110,000 breakfasts were served in its 24 buildings in August -- elementary schools had an average daily participation of nearly 44 percent and secondary schools average nearly 28 percent.

Families can pay for meals on student MealPayPlus accounts, which generated more than $70,000 for August, an increase of nearly 23 percent since last school year.