COLUMBUS, GA (WTVM) - Muscogee County Schools participated in National School Lunch week this week to emphasize the importance of eating healthy meals.
The National School Lunch Program is federally funded and it works to provide healthy and nutritionally balanced meals to students nationwide. The program kicked off in 1949 and the National School Lunch Week started in 1962 to promote school lunches around the country.
"One of the requirements is that students must have either a fruit or a vegetable on their tray," explained Susan Schlader, the assistant school nutrition director with Muscogee County School District. "Of course, our fruits and vegetables are expensive. It's been expensive and pricey for our nutrition department to meet the federal guidelines to provide healthy meals to about 3,200 students in our area."
A spokesperson for the School Nutrition Association explained in June 2014 that having strict rules on school lunches pushed about one million students to chose to not purchase school lunches nationwide.
Schlader also said she saw a drop in a number of students buying school lunches since Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010.
It required schools nationwide to include more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and less fat and salt. However, Schlader said more students were slowly choosing to buy school lunches over the recent years.
"We have seen a little bit of an increase in number of students buying school meals again," Schlader explained. "It's still a challenge and we still have a long way to go. It's expensive to provide whole grain food and fruits and vegetables. School nutrition is self-funded, and all of our money comes from the federal grant of the National School Lunch Program. So we have to strive to really have kids and adults buy our meals so we can cover the cost we have."
Courtney Brooks, a clinical dietitian with Columbus Regional, also explained the new act and schools choosing to provide healthier meals play a huge role in decreasing child obesity and promoting healthy lifestyles.
"Making these small changes will help our children in the long run," Brooks explained. "Some may say fruits and vegetables are more expensive, but healthcare cost will be more expensive if they don't eat healthy and end up with diabetes or other illnesses when they are older. Repetition is what brings about life habits. We want our children to learn to eat healthy meals at home and at our schools."
The federal guideline requires all school lunches to provide five different components to their students.
"Your meat or meat-alternative, your grain like your bread, your milk and two servings of fruits and vegetables," Schlader explained. "Out of that five, students can choose to select a minimum of three items. But one has to be a fruit or vegetable."
Since 2010, the Muscogee County School Nutrition Department has moved away from serving pre-package meals.
"We try to hold meetings for our parents to help them understand about our healthy lunch meals," Schlader said. "I think many children don't like eating healthy foods because they think it may taste bad. We often let them try a spoonful in our cafeteria and most of our kids end up liking them. We always try to put good products for our students and to follow the federal guidelines."