"The first year we did it we saved $7 million for all the systems," said School Nutrition Director and Food Committee Co-chair Tracey Morris.
In 2011, 15 members of the Georgia Educational Cooperative formed a partnership to procure food for their school systems. Beginning with four school systems, Morris said the GEC now represents 44 systems.
"We've had the Georgia Educational Co-op for ... probably 12 years now and we've done milk and bread and small equipment, but the food was the hardest part because there were probably 500 items on the bid," Morris said.
She said the school systems are able to save money by working together and buying in bulk.
"We got together and wrote all of our specifications together and, I hate to say it, but when you get 15 women to agree on one chicken nugget, it's difficult," Morris said. "We sat down as a group and divided into [separate food groups] ... and that was a tremendous value for me because in my department I have me and my bookkeeper and that's it and so there's not time every year to sit down and work on those specifications.
"What we do is bid everything together. We're the biggest [food] buying group in the state of Georgia right now. We account for probably 30 percent of kids in the state of Georgia.
"We send the bid out together, but each system operates the way it always did."
According to the USDA, the purpose of the USDA Best Practices Awards is to encourage and reward outstanding practices in school and School Food Authorities.
Morris and the school system agree that saving money on school lunches was important as funding gets cut and the National School Lunch Program is expecting to lay out new standards on Wednesday.
"We don't really know what [the changes] are yet," Morris said. "I think they had a lot of things that I was concerned about like very low sodium levels ... it was good, but it was too extreme and I think they've backed off on a lot of that.
"I feel like we do a very good job, we have a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables, we incorporate a lot of whole grains and this year we've moved to a non-fat flavored milk."
Superintendent Howard Hinesley praised the school system's nutrition department for their accomplishments.
"We've got a very high [school lunch] participation rate, even at the high school where our seniors have an opportunity to go off campus for lunch," Hinesley said. "We've been operating in the black for a number of years ... and besides providing a service during the [school] year, they provide the service to Bartow County's summer feeding program."
When it comes to feeding the student body, Morris said there was one thing to remember when incorporating healthier foods into a student's diet.
"If they aren't going to eat it, then we haven't made any progress," Morris said.