AMERICUS- When people talk about education, they talk about English and Math, not baked chicken and sweet potatoes. But, as all of the staff of Sumter County Schools' Nutrition Department know: "You can't learn if you are hungry," said SeKeithia Lewis, cafeteria manager of Sumter County Middle School.
Each day, the school system prepares more than 5,100 hot lunches. Foods have to be served at exactly the right temperature and stored in exactly the right way, knowing that at any moment, a state inspector might show up and shove a thermometer into a hamburger preparing to take off points.
In celebration of September as National Food Safety Month, all of Sumter County Schools received an A-grade, with all but one scoring 100 percent from the state inspectors. This took place while the system added a whole new kitchen at Furlow Charter School, to the schools it serves.
"To tell you the truth, I think the schools have some of the cleanest kitchens in the county," said Martha Harvey, director of School Nutrition for Sumter County Schools. "I am very proud of the job we are doing in our kitchens."
The inspections for schools are even more rigorous than for other restaurants because children, along with older people and hospitals, are considered the three high-risk groups for serving food. "Children have not fully developed their immune systems so food protection is very important," said Harvey, who has been working with school nutrition for 25 years.
"The thing that I love about this job is that we are not only supplying the nutritional needs of the students, but we are teaching nutrition by what and how we serve foods in the school cafeteria," said Harvey.
In addition to serving lunch, the schools also serve breakfast to about half of the students in the system, as well as an after-school snack. Beginning at the Intermediate School, students have an increasing number of choices as to what they can eat, with students at the high school able to choose from five different options, making it a challenge to figure out what to offer on any given day.
"USDA and Georgia Department of Education Review Teams do not like us to over-produce," said Harvey. "We have to anticipate the interests of the students when deciding what to offer."
The menu is made up entirely by Harvey and her staff according to increasingly rigid federal guidelines as to what can and cannot be served. It is no longer enough for schools to offer the right number of calories to the right number of kids. Now, mandates from the government are forcing schools throughout the country to develop more nutritious menus.
"We have to add fiber to the diet of the students," said Harvey. "All grains have to be 100 percent whole grain. We have to reduce sugars and reduce the amount of sodium. And whereas once it was sufficient to have a certain amount of vegetables, now there are five categories of vegetables we have to address, including green vegetable, red vegetables and legumes."
As the kitchen staff across the district assembles to have their photo taken in the cafeteria of Sumter Primary School, they talk about the rewards of their job.
"We serve 5,100 lunches a day, and all those children want to give us a hug," said Lewis. "We feel that we are just as much a part of the school system as anyone because we have to get the students prepared to get to the classroom to learn."