Every year, students in Houston County get excited for one of Georgia’s biggest annual events held right in their backyard – the Georgia National Fair. Many students and families in this agricultural community actively participate by showing farm animals, volunteering at booths, and attending the event. But when a school nutrition program chooses to celebrate the fair, of course, the focus is on the food and fun! Menus districtwide are overhauled to include food items mimicking fair foods. Each school gets into the spirit as well, going all out on decorations, having staff and students dress up in costumes and themed shirts, and providing games and other opportunities for kids to get involved. The community loves the connection to the fair and families are very engaged, helping to build strong relationships across the district and getting everyone excited about school meals.
The fair promotion is just one example of the Houston County School Nutrition Program’s dedication to their unique population. Although Houston County can, at times, see fluctuations in student numbers due to nearby Robins Air Force Base, the commitment to serving every student fresh and appealing food at school is unwavering. Taking advantage of USDA funds to participate in the DOD Fresh program, Houston County school nutrition professionals focus on scratch cooking and exposing their students to a wide variety of fresh fruits and veggies. They see their role as more than feeding kids – they go above and beyond to help them develop lifelong healthy eating habits. Parents love knowing their kids are getting great food at school, and students are excited by the delicious meals they receive.
Variety is not lacking on the menu, either. Shifts in market trends and supply chains during COVID changed the food landscape, but with creative thinking and support from the community, school nutrition professionals continue to offer attractive, diverse options. While the pandemic caused significant challenges, the crisis created an opportunity to innovate with parents and members of the community on ways to continue serving children and families.
Menu planning for next school year is already underway. School nutrition professionals are putting time and effort into assessing what the kids are eating, and what needs to be taken off menus. Staff sample new items before they are put on the menu, so they know how the items are supposed to taste and look. If the district is placing a less familiar item on the menu, they pilot test it to gauge whether it is successful before making it a permanent menu item. The staff truly enjoy seeing students try new things and hearing student feedback about their experiences.
Houston County is committed to staff development as well. Potential managers are hired into the Assistant Manager Program to train under training managers at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. They rotate between the groups of training managers to learn as much as they can, including the nuances of all grade levels and operating some schools under the Community Eligibility Provision. Next, managers-in-training transition to one school kitchen to continue their learning. Once they are ready, they can oversee a school kitchen in a manager’s absence before applying for a promotion to manager. Spending time and effort training staff has led to increased student satisfaction and a more durable workforce with less turnover.
With a strong staff, commitment to students, and significant community support, the Houston County School District has positioned itself as a critical resource for students and families, with no signs of slowing down.