SIKESTON - The importance of improving children's diets and their overall health and well-being has been recognized for decades, dating back to 1946 when President Harry Truman signed the National School Lunch Act into law.
The idea was to go beyond the daily meal children would receive. The program was a commitment made by the federal government to work in partnership with states, schools and the agricultural community to see that children are provided the nourishment they need to develop healthy bodies and strong minds.
During National School Lunch Week, Oct. 15-19, educators celebrate that more than 96,000 schools serve lunches to over 27 million children every day (more than half for free or at a reduced price) so that no schoolchild in America, regardless of family income, will go hungry at lunchtime.
On a weekly basis the food services staff of the R-6 District serves between 10,500 and 11,000 meals. Of these, currently 53 percent of the students are either receiving free or cost reduced meals.
It's a big responsibility, said Brad Priday, director of food services for Sikeston Public Schools. "I think what we serve could be some of the most nutritional meals some of these kids will have."
Having that many mouths to feed takes some doing. Schools must meet USDA requirements for monitoring nutrient values of the food served which means making certain the food items have a certain amount calories, sodium, cholesterol level, fiber, iron, calcium, fat, saturated fat and vitamins A and C.
To make sure this happens, Sikeston Public Schools' food services department plans its menus a month in advance. "We base that over a five-day average, so along that week we have to make sure that we are meeting those guidelines and as long as we are, we are giving them, for their age group, the nutritional values that they need," explained Priday. "That's how our menus are based.
"I do it a month in advance because it helps us with planning for purchasing. We may have someone come in and they can give us a better price if I know that I'm having hamburgers two days during the month and I can make an advanced buy. It helps us keep our costs down and it helps the ladies be more planned, they're not shuffling trying to figure out what they need this week."
Priday reported the most popular meals are those featuring pizza, served a couple times a week, and a newly introduced chicken fajita lunch.
"The teachers want us to have ham and beans and cornbread but that's not something the kids like and you've got to be careful," he quipped.
Priday praised his staff for their dedication and hard work, remarking there is more involved in getting the food on the students' plates than many individuals realize.
He noted some of the "cafeteria ladies" arrive for work at 7 a.m., preparing for the day's meal. This is especially the case at Senior High School where food for five schools is prepared. The number of meals prepared here each day is approximately 1,300.
"They have a lot to get done," Priday said. "I have a staff of 60 and four of those are substitutes who have retired from the school and can work about 500 hours a year. My staff does a good job, I have a good bunch of ladies who help and two guys who haul all the food around which is a huge job.
"A lot of people can remember their lunch ladies' faces, they'll see them out down the road and will remember them from Junior High, for instance. I try to stress to the ladies that it's just like working anywhere, your customer relations is important and these kids are your customers. You have to be pleasant to them because sometimes at school theirs might be the only smiling face they get from strangers that day."
What Priday wants the students to know this week and every week is how dedicated his staff is to making sure they receive the nutritional meals they need while being offered the foods they like.
"We want the kids and the parents to know we are trying to give the students what they need for the day to help them learn, that's the reason we do it," said Priday. "We've talked about how we affect the kids before. Teachers have a direct effect on kids, but I think we have an indirect effect because we affect their learning environment. We have a pleasant environment, we provide them a nutritious meal and that gives them better opportunities to learn and to me, that's why we're here."