Slice o’ Love: Local lunchroom patrons are eating more varied, homemade dishes than ever

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It's lunch time at the Morgan County Primary School cafeteria. Photo by Jesse Walker

It’s lunch time at the Morgan County Primary School cafeteria. Photo by Jesse Walker

Menus are online! Go to the system’s website,, and click on the “School Nutrition” tab.

By Katie Walker, Staff Writer

“Woke up in the Mornin’, put on my new plastic glove.

Serve some reheated salisbury steak, with a little slice of love.

Got no clue what the chicken pot pie is made of.

I just know everything is doin’ fine down here in… Lunchlady Land.”

Adam Sandler’s 1993 homage to the noble denizens of school lunchrooms may be a classic, but in terms of school nutrition, the song is showing its age.

These days, the lunch ladies (and men) do more than reheat salisbury steak and spar with chop suey, liver and onions, and mean green beans. Students in Morgan County dine on healthy meals, made-from-scratch but still served with a little slice of love.

“This year I’m not processing anything. We’re pretty much trying to prepare any complex items on our menus from scratch,” said Morgan County Schools Nutrition Director Phyllis Martin.

On Wednesday, students chowed down on barbecue pork sandwiches, baked beans, homestyle coleslaw. This Georgia-inspired menu was recommended by the Georgia School Nutrition Association for National School Lunch Week. A fresh Gala apple, grown right up the road in Rabun County, at Hillside Farms, finished out the meal.

This week, school lunches across the nation featured regional cuisine in celebration of National School Lunch Week. Since 1946, when President Harry Truman signed the National School Lunch Act, schools have been instrumental in feeding children. Modernization has dramatically changed our foodways; processed, pre-cooked foods are often the norm for food service providers. In a way, Martin’s decision to opt for unprocessed USDA commodity foods marks a return to old ways, where fruits, vegetables and meats take a more direct route from farm (to USDA warehouses) to table.

“We receive USDA commodities, and they’re at no cost to us, we just pay for shipping from a warehouse. We can have these commodities (such as pork roasts) sent directly to us,” Martin said. “We can have raw pork roasts sent to us and we can cook them and prepare them, or we can send them to a processor, and they can process it into barbecue, or any other end product we may need.”

Skipping the processor saves the system money, and allows the schools’ culinary staff to follow their own recipes.

“[Processing] does cost more, because basically you’re taking a product that you normally wouldn’t pay for, and you’re sending it to a processor to prepare it into something that you have to pay for,” Martin said. “Surprisingly, a lot of the cooks do like to cook from recipes, and to cook from scratch. There are a few items they like to see processed, especially on our Thanksgiving dinner. That’s a tough menu for them.”

The USDA determines Morgan County’s allotment of commodity food based upon the number of students who order from the lunchroom. This year, Morgan County was allotted $86,000 in entitlement money, which Martin used to purchase USDA allotment food from their website.

“This year, I’ve purchased roasted chicken, we purchased potato products – french fries, potato rounds – turkey roasts, pork roasts,” she said. “They’re the most beautiful roasts that you’d ever see. We purchased vegetables… legumes, like pinto beans, great northern beans, green beans, and we get some of our fruit – applesauce, peaches, fruit cocktail – we can purchase that from the USDA also.”

What Martin can order is somewhat contingent on what other school systems in the area order. The USDA delivers by the truckload, so other schools in the Northeast Georgia region must request the same foods to fulfill the bulk order.

As part of the Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, those orders have grown more colorful and varied. To meet modern nutrition standards, meal planning must include more whole grains, dark green vegetables, red/orange vegetables, legumes, and 100 percent juice.

“We have to offer vegetable subgroups – once a week, a dark green vegetable, red/orange, a starchy vegetable and so-forth,” Martin said. “As far as red-orange vegetables, there aren’t that many vegetables in that category. We tried sweet potatoes a few years ago, and I don’t think most of the students had seen a regular baked sweet potato at that time, but now they’re becoming more common.”

Martin conducts student surveys, and informal plate-waste studies to determine what foods are a hit, and what foods miss the mark with picky students. She tries to select foods that students will enjoy, that also meet the nutritional standard required by the National School Lunch Program.

“Sometimes we serve things that they don’t like, hoping that they will actually try it, and maybe they’ll eat it the next time,” said Martin, with a smile.

This is especially true at the Morgan County Primary and Elementary schools, where Martin and the cafeteria team try to introduce young (and often picky) eaters to a wide variety of foods. Whereas students at MCHS generally prefer biscuits, or cereal and toast for breakfast, breakfast at the primary school can vary from waffles and fruit, to scrambled eggs, toast, and pear halves, or mini corndogs with a side of pineapple tidbits. This month, MCPS began serving grab-and-go breakfasts, so students can eat in the classroom.

Martin hopes that this will result in more students eating breakfast, and will help the teachers in taking attendance and other morning duties.

“It’s to help them explore new foods, and we also want to be able to provide a meal for them, so that they go into the classroom, be there and ready to learn,” Martin said.

The meal planning doesn’t stop when school is out, either. During the recent Fall intercession, and during the Spring intercession and Summer, Morgan County’s school cafeterias were preparing meals so that no child would go hungry.

The Seamless Summer Lunch program provides sack lunches to any child, regardless of enrollment or level of financial need. There has been an increased need as more students qualify for free or reduced-cost lunch, though the program is not limited to them.

“It’s not just for students who receive free or reduced meals, it’s for any student who is enrolled in our school system, and even for children who are just coming into town to visit with grandparents and aunts and uncles. They’re able to have meals, also,” Martin said.

This past Summer, the school system provided meals for Orchard Grove, Crossroads, Boys and Girls Club, and even a church’s Vacation Bible School.

The Seamless Summer Program is through the USDA, and reimburses the school at the free lunch rate. Five days a week, students can get a free breakfast – anything from cereal and milk, to sausage biscuits, fruit, or pancakes – and a free sack lunch (often a sandwich meal.) This program ran throughout the Summer, with the exception of the week of July 4th.

“It’s continuing to grow, and hopefully it will grow a little bit each year,” Martin said. “We just want to make sure students who aren’t able to have meals at home during the summer are able to have access to them if they need them.”

The sage words of Adam Sandler ring true:

“I know you want seconds on the corndogs, but theres no reason to shout.

Everybody gets enough food down here in… Lunchlady Land.”

It's lunch time at the Morgan County Primary School cafeteria. Photo by Jesse Walker

It’s lunch time at the Morgan County Primary School cafeteria. Photo by Jesse Walker

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