Registered dietitian Donna Martin, EdS, RD, LD, SNS, is the school nutrition director in Burke County, Ga. This rural community has among the highest child poverty rates in the United States, according to 2010 U.S. Census data showing nearly half of Burke’s children live below the poverty line. So following the passage of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act in December 2010 — in which one of the provisions was that school systems could receive federal reimbursement for student dinners if there was some educational component — Martin was the first person in Georgia to apply.
Between breakfast, lunch and the snack provided at school, the students were only getting about 1500 calories a day,” says Martin. She was approached by Burke County football coach Eric Parker, and together they strategized to help get the kids their required 4,000-5,000 daily calories. In fall of 2011, the school started serving 500 supper meals a day, Monday through Thursday. They also offered peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to athletes and encouraged them to drink milk to replenish their protein stores after exercise. The results were nearly immediate.
By December, CBS ran a story about the triumphant state championship victory of Burke’s high school football team. “We had never won before,” says Martin, “and to win the state championship was a huge deal. That’s every high school’s dream.”
“We’re probably like most small towns in America right now — we’re struggling,” Coach Parker told reporters. “So bringing food home and putting it on the table for a lot of our people… that’s a big deal. [Before] we had kids who, by Tuesday, literally had to be removed from practice because of the intensity and the amount of energy they were expending.” And when interviewed, the football players credited the school nutrition service for their improved energy and endurance.
“The TV station kept asking, ‘Don’t you feel this is a frustrating situation?’ ” says Martin. “I get to feed these kids breakfast, lunch and dinner plus snacks — and it’s healthy food. I know exactly what they’re eating, and we get to teach them healthy things. So honestly, this is a registered dietitian’s dream job.”