Before Lydia Martin oversaw districts implementing federal nutrition standards for school meals, she was the person implementing the standards herself. As a school nutrition director, she worked to bring healthy, kid-friendly foods to cafeteria trays in three Georgia districts over the span of 13 years.
But even before that, she was a clinical dietitian where she had what she calls an “eye-opener” after treating an 8-year-old with Type 2 diabetes. It was then that Lydia committed herself to helping kids develop life-long healthy eating habits and has continued to do that at the district and now at the state level.
As a grants program consultant for the Georgia Department of Education’s School Nutrition Program, Lydia now works with 12 districts in Georgia, giving her a bird’s eye view of how federal nutrition standards are being followed throughout the state.
For the most part, she’s pleased to see schools using innovative practices to follow the USDA meal pattern. Though, there are always opportunities for improvement and districts can benefit from guidance and training to successfully operate their school nutrition programs.
That’s where Lydia and her co-workers come in. District nutrition directors can request training and technical assistance around topics such as procurement of fresh fruits and vegetables, marketing of their programs or meeting the USDA’s Smart Snacks in School standards – a particularly challenging topic in the state. In Georgia, each year schools can host up to 30 fundraisers that can last up to three days and are exempt from the USDA’s Smart Snacks in School standards (that’s about half the school year!). This certainly poses a challenge to maintaining a healthy school culture, but Lydia is working with districts to find healthier alternatives to food-based fundraisers that will continue to boost their bottom line.
She often directs schools to the Alliance for a Healthier Generation’s Product Calculator for Smart Snacks, which helps school nutrition professionals and other school staff quickly assess whether or not a food or beverage meets the standards.
Lydia’s favorite part of her job is when she encounters districts that are going above and beyond in their efforts to educate school communities about the importance of good nutrition for kids. For example, one of the districts she works with, Cherokee County School District, created a webpage to share information about the Smart Snacks standards to ensure that parents, community members, staff and students are all on the same page about the importance of serving healthy foods at school.
Looking back on the various roles she’s played as an advocate for child health, Lydia is happy she landed in school nutrition. “School nutrition is filled with great people and you don’t get the sense of camaraderie or family in any other industry,” she says. “We are very passionate about what we do because kids are our future ‒ and a healthier student is going to be a better student.”