By Bob Weaver

Nearly 90,000 students in the state will have the opportunity to eat free school meals this year, including 1,100 in Calhoun Schools.

The free meal initiative comes after numerous studies show that state students are among the most malnourished while being among the most obese in the nation.

Some school systems lurched forward last year to increase the nutritional value of meals, causing an outcry from parents and students in a number of school districts.

Calhoun school administrator Donnie Pitts said, "With new breakfast and lunch guidelines being implemented over the next two to three years, we will see the most significant changes in the pattern for school meals ever."

Pitts said the point of this change is to provide more nutritious and healthy meals that are still appealing to students, studies say that good nutrition not only helps with obesity problems, but also effects student learning.

Society has become increasingly sedentary with children replacing exercise with TV watching, video games and time in front of computers.

"Obesity is a multifaceted epidemic in our county, state and country, with no clear cut solution," Pitts said.

Pitts said with a gradual move to locally prepared items and more fresh fruits and vegetables, the school system will be better able to control the nutritional content of the food served in Calhoun schools.

He said a troublesome aspect of correcting nutrition problems is actually reducing the quantity of food served.

"This may actually be the most difficult part of the change because of the vast difference among students for daily calories. Many students could feel they are not getting enough to eat even though they are getting what is required," said Pitts.

"The other important part of school meals is to be able to provide high quality nutritious meals that students will eat. Cost and labor restrictions will not allow schools to provide the same options that students have become accustomed at their local fast food restaurant."

"If students choose not to eat school meals then all the efforts we make to improve nutrition will be wasted and will have absolutely no effect on the obesity problem," he said.

State policy prohibits the sale of soft drinks to students in elementary/middle schools at any time or during the school day at the high school level.

High schools continue to sell soft drinks only outside the school day to include ball game concessions and other after school activities.

Machines may be provided to dispense water and 100% fruit drinks to students at all levels except during breakfast and lunch service times.

"It is our hope that all students will take advantage of the opportunity to have a nutritious breakfast and lunch at no cost to their parents. We are committed to continuous improvement of the meals we serve to students and staff," Pitts concluded.

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