By Bonny Van

The Catholic Commentator 

For one week in the month of February, government officials visit Catholic schools in the Diocese of Baton Rouge. But their mission takes them past the principal’s office, past math class, past the gym and beyond the playground. They head straight to the cafeteria where workers are loading up trays, handing out milk and squeezing ketchup on fish sandwiches.  

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Representatives from the Louisiana Department of Education Food Nutrition program help serve lunch at St. George School in Baton Rouge on Feb. 13 as government representatives visited Catholic schools in the Diocese of Baton Rouge to see the school lunch program.  Photos by Bonny Van | The Catholic Commentator  

 

Eddie Longoria with the U.S. Department of Agriculture regional office in Dallas said the week allows representatives to “see the great meals the schools are serving.”  

According to Longoria, the USDA works closely with the Louisiana Department of Education, which administers the programs for the federal government.  

“It gives me an opportunity to ensure they’re following the rules but also to see the innovative ways the school districts are able to take the meal pattern and create some phenomenal meals that are so healthy, that even meals that most people on the street don’t realize are being served in schools,” he said.  

St. George cafeteria manager Sue Wiggins said nearly 650 students are served meals each school day. She said even with following federal guidelines on salt and calories, her team is able to provide a good variety of choices for the children. During this visit, students were served fish sandwiches, french fries, a cup of salad, an orange and milk.  

“We make homestyle lasagna, we make rolls here, gumbo … we’re just keeping it traditional, and I think it’s important for kids to get to eat those meals because a lot of times, after holidays, kids are really hungry. They didn’t get their regularly scheduled meals because people are on the go and stuff like that,” said Wiggins.  

Five days a week, students at almost every Catholic school throughout the diocese can eat three meals a day during the school year. Breakfast, lunch and afterschool meals are offered from August to May and more than half of that funding, 55 percent, comes from the government. That’s why the Legislative Shadow Week at Catholic schools, highlighting child nutrition, is so important for government officials to visit schools in the diocese and see what’s cooking.  

“We want people to be aware how much good is being done with taxpayer dollars and in terms of serving children to make sure they get the optimum nutrition in a wholesome environment that supports the educational process,” said John Dupre, director of Food Nutrition for the state education department.  

Last school year, more than 1.3 million breakfasts and lunches were served in Catholic schools in the diocese. Also, 258,716 afterschool meals were served.  

Recently, Catholic of Pointe Coupee High School in New Roads added the afterschool meal to its lineup of offerings for students. Dupre said it’s also important to offer a variety of choices to students. He noted that diversity in food choices could lead to a better diet down the road.  

“So these programs not only nourish our basic needs but also provide students the opportunity to learn and grow and experience more foods, hopefully experience some things that you might not get at home and expand your horizons as they grow into adulthood,” he said.  

Child Nutrition Program director Lynda Carville said the official visits bring about a sense of community involvement “to open the doors and let people understand what we do as nutritionists in providing a good healthy meal for our students.” She said the visits go beyond nutritional education, something she noticed when Baton Rouge Mayor Sharon Weston Broome visited the cafeteria at Our Lady of Mercy School in Baton Rouge.  

“Some of the girls were asking the mayor, ‘Why did you want to be mayor?’ And, ‘What did you do to get there?’ It was very engaging so I think it was a very valuable lesson for teachers to help engage their students by telling them state and federal officials were going to be at their school so it became a learning tool for them as well as educating them about what we’re doing,” said Carville.  

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A student at St. George School in Baton Rouge loads his lunch tray with healthy items as representatives from the USDA and Louisiana Department of Education visit schools to see how they are meeting guidelines for the school lunch program.