When Paula Baker gets to work at 6:30 a.m., she has a lot of mouths to feed.
Baker, for the past eight years, has been the cafeteria manager at Columbus High School. Everyday, she and her staff prepare 2,324 meals — two for 1,162 students.
She has worked in the cafeteria for 19 years. In that time, much has changed in the practice of feeding students.
But for Baker — who has prepared meals for an entire generation of Falcons — the job, day in and day out, remains the same. Her focus is still on helping and understanding students.
The obesity epidemic across the United States has been particularly devastating in Mississippi, where, five years ago, 40 percent of children were overweight or obese, according to the state Department of Education’s Office of Healthy Schools.
In 2007, the state legislature passed the Healthy Schools Act. It called for increased health and nutrition education at all grade levels and 150 minutes of exercise each week for students in kindergarten through the eighth grade.
Scott Clements, director of the Mississippi Bureau of Child Nutrition, said the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act that the federal government implemented in 2010 changed the game.
The act has had a strong impact in Columbus. In the last three years, Baker said bread products in each of the district’s cafeterias are now whole grain. The district has also stopped frying foods and added healthier options.
“It’s much better,” Baker said. “There’s more choice now — better choices you could say.”
The menu at Columbus High School has the most options in the district. Each day features four meat options, two fruit options, a garden salad and another vegetable.
The cafeteria staff has all the nutritional goals listed on their menus. A balanced meal, according to the Bureau of Child Nutrition’s Mississippi Recipes for Success, will contain between 700 to 800 calories, around 1500 milligrams of sodium, about ten grams of fiber, five grams of iron, 30 to 40 grams of protein and 600 to 650 milligrams of calcium.
This year, the Columbus Municipal School District began participating in the Community Eligibility Option. This gives all students in the district free meals.
As previously reported by The Dispatch, up to 95 percent of district students already qualify for free or reduced lunch. This new program is saving the district around $100,000 a year, and is also putting more responsibility on the cafeteria staff across the district.
Baker said the high school is feeding more kids now because of the free meals. Children have the option to get their base meal for free, but they are charged for extras.
“We always tell them to make sure to give them what they’re supposed to have, and not what you want them to have,” Baker said. “Because this could be the only meal they have. And this could be the best meal they have.”
All Mississippi schools are required to send menu information to the Bureau of Child Nutrition. Since 2010, schools have had to submit themselves to menu reviews every three years, so state officials can ensure that all districts are meeting standards. Previously, menus were submitted every five years.
Mississippi was the first state in the country to start a purchasing collective. This collective has a committee that evaluates and tests products served in Mississippi schools and involves a standardized ingredient statute, Clements said.
The collective also worked with a chef to create salt-free spice blends, which has enabled schools to reduce the amount of sodium given to students.
Still, what the students choose to eat is up to them. The cafeteria staff, however, does make sure all students leave the lunch line with a balanced plate. If someone doesn’t take a vegetable, Baker said, the staff will tell them to pick up another fruit option.
Clements said offering better choices has resulted in some of the state’s poor childhood health numbers slowly turning around.
“In Mississippi, we have finally seen a plateau and even a drop in childhood obesity rates,” Clements said.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported a three percent drop in childhood obesity between 2009 and 2013, from 18 to 15 percent.
Offering students healthier options has begun to turn things around. But for Baker, being successful at her craft is still about creating relationships with students. It takes a certain attitude, she said.
“You don’t really know what’s going on at home with kids these days,” Baker said.
It’s often the kids that are acting out who need to be dealt with in the most sensitive way, she said. It is her and her staff’s job to ensure that students have what they need to help them be the best students they can be.
“To me, all the students are my favorite,” Baker said. “Because my thing is that you want to make sure you’re feeding them. Even with the ones who don’t act right, they’re still my favorite students…but never go out there and blast them….because you don’t know what’s behind it.”
Clements said making sure students are well fed is critical because hungry students don’t learn, and healthier children are proven to learn better.
Everyday, 387,000 kids eat in public school cafeteria’s statewide. That is 12.9 percent of the state’s population, which makes the job cafeteria workers like the ones in Columbus schools do carry a high impact.