How some Georgia schools are winning the school lunch war

Contrary to what you might have heard, Michelle Obama has not destroyed the American school lunch program.

In Georgia and across the country, fewer kids are choosing school lunches. Some school nutrition directors say that was caused by meal and price changes required by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 for which Obama has been spokeswoman.

But some Georgia schools have shown it is possible to meet both the stricter federal nutrition requirements and even tougher kids’ standards, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis of state and local data shows.

The number of lunches served under the National School Lunch Program declined by about 3 percent nationally from a high point in 2010 through 2013, according to federal data. In Georgia, the decline was about 4 percent.

Fewer students eating school meals means lower federal reimbursements to schools, making it harder for food service departments to break even.

And some research has shown that lunches students bring from home tend to be less healthy than the ones schools provide.

However, Atlanta Neighborhood Charter School is growing the number of kids in the lunch line while serving healthier meals. It recruited David Bradley, a former top chef for fancy-pants Atlanta restaurants such as Lure, to run its food service program. Bradley and his staff replaced a catering company whose food students described as “kind of gross.”

Now ANCS cooks most of its food from scratch, using few canned or frozen vegetables. Meals feature produce from the school’s garden and, when possible, antibiotic and hormone-free meat. Earlier this year, Bradley butchered a whole lamb and served the meat in school meals.

ANCS is publicly funded and has to comply with the same meal rules as most traditional public schools. Less than a fifth of ANCS students are eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch, but the school served about 30 percent more lunches this October than last October even as enrollment held steady, according to school data.

One recent lunch featured chili with quinoa, cornbread, salad, an apple and a carton of milk. On the menu for later in the week: New England clam chowder, pulled pork sliders, and roast turkey — or tofu — with gravy.

“They’ve done really well,” eighth grader Lily Conable said. “We never had quinoa or tofu last year.” Lily said she prefers school lunch to packing her own because it’s better balanced than, say, a sandwich with a side of Cheez-Its.

Not everything Bradley tried has been a success.

Earlier this year, he shopped a local farmer’s market in true farm-to-table style to create a seasonal vegetable plate—including a watermelon and tomato salad with basil, three-bean salad, roasted spaghetti squash and stewed okra.

The younger kids “…wouldn’t even touch it,” Bradley said.

One key to boosting school lunch rates is selling students, parents and staff on any changes, said Jessica Donze Black, director of the Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project.

Georgia school nutrition directors also cite factors such as listening to students, giving kids enough time to eat, displaying foods attractively and keeping prices low.

“Once you start getting over two dollars, the parents start thinking, ‘I can pack it better,’ ” said Donna Martin, nutrition director for Burke County schools.

ANCS charges students $3.50 for lunch. Fulton County, Gwinnett County and Atlanta Public schools charge $2.50 or less, Cobb County $2.40 or less and DeKalb County $2.25 or less.

Fulton County’s percentage of students eating school lunch dropped by about 7 percentage points since 2010, state data says. About half ate school lunch last year. But this year, Fulton’s lunch numbers are up, nutrition director Alyssia Wright said. And the number of full-price meals Fulton students purchased rose about 30 percent.

“We rebranded ourselves,” Wright explained.

Fulton now offers high school students at least nine entrée choices. Even elementary students get at least three options. Student taste tests helped her pick some of the choices, with pizza — whole wheat crust and reduced fat cheese, of course — and chicken nuggets topping the list.

Fulton also eliminated its separate à la carte line, where students could buy only the items they wanted. The federal government does not reimburse schools for those items. Now, because all students who want to eat go through the lunch line, the school receives varying levels of reimbursement for each complete meal.

DeKalb saw a 3 percentage point decrease since 2010, according to state data. That was due mostly due to the new meal rules, assistant nutrition director Connie Walker said.

But the district is adjusting. Cheese quesadillas replaced whole wheat empanadas that students apparently felt were not just like abuela used to make. And the ubiquitous chicken nuggets — yes, with whole grain breading — stayed on the menu.

In Atlanta Public Schools, the percentage of kids eating school lunch declined 3 percentage points from a high of 69 in 2011. But most schools saw increases last year.

A big reason: APS took advantage of a new provision in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act that allows schools with a minimum percent of students eligible for free or reduced-price meals to offer free meals to all students, regardless of family income.

About 55 Atlanta schools were part of that program last year, including South Atlanta High School.

At one recent South Atlanta lunch period, options included thin-crust pizzas, a deli sandwich station, rosemary baked chicken with roasted potatoes, mixed vegetables and whole wheat bread sticks; and burgers and fries — baked, of course.

The pizza these days is better than the greasy slices sophomore Myles Grant remembers eating in elementary school, though he’d like more fruits offered besides apples and oranges. And the burgers aren’t bad either, said senior Keyon Edge, ranking them a step up from McDonald’s and just below Wendy’s.

“I think they’re trying to make a real difference,” Myles said.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.