A top official from the federal school nutrition program taste-tested some of the free meals offered to students at Sandy Springs’ Lake Forest Elementary School on Jan. 12, where one girl schooled him on eating less sugar.

Kevin Concannon, an under secretary at the U.S. Department of Agriculture overseeing the school meals, also met with a roundtable of parents, Fulton County School staff and members of childhood obesity programs run by the state and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.

Concannon said in an interview that the point of federally subsidized school meals is “fewer kids unable to learn because their stomach is growling.” In town for other meetings, he visited Lake Forest as “sampling to make sure” the programs are working and to tell members of Congress he has seen the impacts in their districts’ schools firsthand. It just so happens that school nutrition program funding is up for Congressional reauthorization in coming weeks.

Kevin Concannon, under secretary for food, nutrition and consumer services at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, eats lunch with students at Lake Forest Elementary School in Sandy Springs on Jan. 12. (Photo John Ruch)

Lake Forest is one of 22 Fulton schools with a large number of students from low-income families that offers free breakfast and lunch through the USDA’s Community Eligibility Provision. No applications are needed for the free meals.

But Fulton Schools and the USDA also work to make meals not only free, but also healthy, and to tie food knowledge into the curriculum. Fulton Schools works with its food service provider to get locally and regionally sourced ingredients in a “Farm to School” effort. And Lake Forest is one of 15 Fulton schools with a program that gives kids a specific fruit or vegetable to try out as a new snack.

“Yesterday was fresh dates,” said Fulton Schools dietician Ruth Taylor. “Tomorrow is fresh yellow and green wax beans.”

There are signs that the food and the messages behind it are working. When Concannon attempted to discuss chocolate milk with kids at the cafeteria table, one girl piped in with some information of her own. “This little kid was lecturing me on the evils of sugar,” Concannon said happily afterward at the roundtable discussion.

The parents, some of whom spoke only Spanish, expressed satisfaction with Lake Forest’s efforts. One said the free meals are good for his kids as he is finding work hard to come by—though getting them to eat their mother’s home cooking at night is a different story.

A mother said that her daughter, now 9, was told by a doctor two years ago to avoid eating in the school cafeteria as she battled obesity. Today’s healthier menu makes for different advice, she said. “It has been a huge change, what they offer in the cafeteria,” she said through a translator.

In current school year, Fulton Schools boosted its free breakfast and lunch program to 22 schools from only two the year before. The district aims to add three more schools next year. Fulton Schools offers a variety of free food programs, including after-school snacks and a summer meals program. For more information, see fcsnutrition.com.

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.