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Ms. Croom Goes to Washington!

At our fifth and final congressional meeting of the day on Capitol Hill, our Georgia team heard the same remarks about new, healthier school meals. Rep. John Barrow said he’d heard people say there’s a lot of plate waste, that kids were throwing their school lunch in the trash.

From left: Carrollton City School Nutrition Director Dr. Linette Dodson, Sen. Johnny Isakson and Georgia Organics Farm to School Director Erin Croom.

From left: Carrollton City School Nutrition Director Dr. Linette Dodson, Sen. Johnny Isakson and Georgia Organics Farm to School Director Erin Croom.

“Actually, they’re not in our schools,” Dr. Linette Dodson, Carrollton City School Nutrition Director replied.

We were in D.C. as part of a national gathering in support of efforts to improve school nutrition coordinated by the Pew Charitable Trusts, and approximately 40 people representing school nutrition, parents, researchers and community partners met with members of Congress to share the successes that we’ve seen since new school nutritional standards were incorporated after the passage of the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act. Georgia representatives included two of our state’s top school nutrition directors, Dr. Dodson and Donna Martin of Burke County, Georgia PTA Health and Wellness Chair, Heather Young, and myself. You can see photos from our trip here!

We met with five Georgia Congressional members and their staff: Rep. John Lewis, Sen. Saxby Chambliss, Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, Sen. Johnny Isakson, and Rep. John Barrow.  During our time in each office, we shared stories about how the Healthy Hunger Free Kid Act has improved the nutrition of school meals, as well as the ongoing need for equipment, infrastructure and training that schools need to serve this food.

While the new standards may have been a little rocky to implement in some schools where children (and the staff that served them) weren’t used to so many fruits, vegetables and whole grains, Dodson has seen her students become more familiar with these healthier foods, and grow to love eating them.

In most meetings, our congressmen were interested in the impact of farm to school and how purchasing fresh, local fruits and vegetables for school meals can bolster Georgia agriculture’s bottom line. We shared that kids can actually change what they eat, especially when cafeteria staff are trained to prepare the foods and have the equipment they need, as well as when teachers and parents reinforce healthy eating through gardening and taste tests.

The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Kid’s Safe and Healthful Foods Project  was a tireless advocate for the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act (HHFKA), which dramatically improved school meals, and increased the numbers of fruits and vegetables offered through these programs. Despite these improvements, however, school meals have still gotten some bad press.

And it turns out it’s great that we were there—our congressmen weren’t hearing many of the great stories that came out of the passage of HHFKA, like more fresh, local food through farm to school programs, salad bars, and a football team that overcame malnutrition and won the state championship through eating school supper. In fact, a recent Pew research study concluded that 84% of school districts in Georgia are successfully serving healthy meals that meet the new nutrition standards.

Because our congressmen were only hearing stories about plate waste and failure, these improved nutrition standards that we worked so hard to get could be under threat to roll back.

Jessica Donze Black, Director of the Safe and Healthful Foods Project, explained the dilemma this way: we all know it can be tough to serve kids fruits and vegetables.  But the logical solution is certainly not to stop serving these foods because children don’t like them—the solution is to figure out how to provide schools the trainings and equipment they need to make these offerings exciting and palatable.

Black emphasized that the National School Lunch Program was founded in 1946 (by Georgia Sen. Richard B. Russell, FYI), and the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act was simply a way to update our standards to meet the most recent scientific nutrition research available.

Speaking of research, Pew conducted an extensive state-by-state analysis on what equipment and infrastructure was needed in school kitchens. 92 percent of school districts in Georgia need at least one piece of equipment to serve nutritious foods, and 65 percent of the districts need kitchen infrastructure changes in at least one school. Some of these needs are as low as $5,000 for simple equipment like sharp knives, salad spinners, and cutting boards. House Bill 1783, the School Food Modernization Act, would provide the incredibly vital training and equipment that schools need to serve better food.

An additional bonus of the trip:  we met and talked with USDA Undersecretary Kevin Concannnon, who oversees most everything we care about: child nutrition programs including National School Lunch, School Breakfast, and Summer Food Service Programs; The Child and Adult Care Food Program; SNAP; the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC); the Commodity Supplemental Food Program; Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations; and The Emergency Food Assistance Program. He also is in charge of promoting the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, MyPlate, and a number of dietary and economic reports which inform Americans.

A lot of times, it feels like our voices aren’t heard in a busy place like Washington, D.C. But your voices and your children do matter. Our representatives need to hear these stories about how schools and farm to school initiatives are changing the way kids are eating—and how these programs are helping to reverse childhood obesity in our state. Invite them to come to your school to eat a meal, to watch a cafeteria staff knife skills training, or to observe children growing beans in the garden or cooking kale with a teacher.

I was honored to go to D.C. and help share your stories, andhope you will take the time to share your message and needs with our U.S. and state congressmen as well.

Here’s a link to find your U.S. Congressmen, as well as your state senators and representatives.

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