Fresh new ideas changing school menus

A Statham Elementary student enjoys a grass-fed beef burger donated by a nearby farm, a first for Georgia schools. Photos by Lacey Avery
A Statham Elementary student enjoys a grass-fed beef burger donated by nearby Lazy B Farms (left), a first for Georgia schools. Photos courtesy of Cyndi Ball

The lunchrooms of Statham Elementary and South Jackson Elementary dished up an unusual meal in late January: hamburgers made from grass-fed beef donated by local farmer Cyndi Ball.

Cows in the Cafeteria is a new nonprofit organization that Ball established to bring local beef –- and a better understanding of healthy eating –- to Georgia schoolchildren. The program debuted in Barrow and Jackson counties.

Ball, owner of Lazy B Farms in Statham, donated enough beef to feed more than 1,200 students.

At Cows in the Cafeteria’s first lunch, burgers were served with all the toppings, alongside sliced peaches and crispy baked sweet potato fries, a healthy alternative to traditional French fries.

Teachers at Statham Elementary used the Jan. 25 event to start conversations about nutrition and healthier eating habits.

“There was a lot of discussion about what was happening and the fact that Statham Elementary was the first school in the state to have local beef brought in,” said Ball, who visited with students during lunch that day.

Cows in the Cafeteria served its first meal the same week that first lady Michelle Obama and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack released the new national standards for school meals, which include more fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

Barrow County began making menu changes before the standards were announced. In addition to offering more fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains, the cafeteria now bakes foods that used to be fried, like the sweet potato fries that students ate with their burgers.

An early start on good health

Next year, Barrow County Schools nutritional director Pamela LeFrois aims to serve only whole grains among her bread items, to make school meals healthier while meeting the national requirements.

The new national school meal standards are just one of the first lady’s health-related initiatives. She has also pushed for healthier food to be served to U.S. troops.

Another of her youth-related campaigns is the Let’s Move campaign, which aims to reduce childhood obesity, a major problem in Georgia.

In Georgia, 65 percent of adults and 40 percent of kids were overweight or obese in 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those are alarming figures, ranking the state among the most obese in the nation. In the nation as a whole, an estimated 17 percent of children are overweight or obese.

In response to this problem, the University of Georgia has brought together more than 100 faculty members from a variety of disciplines to form the Obesity Initiative, unveiled in January.

Through this initiative, university researchers will develop programs that can be implemented in Georgia communities to address adult and childhood obesity.

“Eighty percent of people who are obese as children will be obese as adults, so it will cause a continued increase in the rate of obesity,” said Clifton Baile, a Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar who is leading the UGA initiative.

The differences in beef

Childhood obesity is not an isolated issue, but a crisis with far-reaching effects.

More and more obese children are being treated for diseases usually found in adults, such as Type 2 diabetes, said Baile. “It’s not a good way to start life.”

Obese children and adults have an increased risk for a long list of diseases, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease and certain types of cancer, he said.

Some view Cows in the Cafeteria as a healthy alternative to the “mystery meat” that is supposed to be a staple of school menus. Others say the grass-fed beef is not necessarily more nutritious than the meat normally served to students.

While the hormone levels in beef may vary, its composition is essentially the same, Baile said.

But LeFrois, Barrow County’s nutritional director, stressed the beef’s local origins. “Any time you can do fresh is better,” she said.

Lacey Avery is a graduate student at the University of Georgia College of Journalism and Mass Communication pursuing health and medical journalism. She is interested in nutrition, fitness and environmental health, and works as a graduate assistant with Georgia Sea Grant, a program that promotes research, education and outreach on the Georgia coast.