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Alaska school lunches get a healthier facelift

Suzanna Caldwell
Workers prepare school lunches of popcorn chicken and corn at the Anchorage School District's central kitchen. October 3, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Workers package a school lunch of popcorn chicken and corn at the Anchorage School District's central kitchen. October 3, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
A worker moves packaged school lunches to a freezer where they will be frozen until distribution the next day. October 3, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Drivers load trucks with meals ready to be delivered to schools on October 3, 2012. The Anchorage School District serves 17,000 to 18,000 meals each school day.
Loren Holmes photo
Taku Elementary cafeteria manager Nancy Arnold prepares to serve 300 lunches to students on October 3, 2012. In front of her are locally grown carrots, and grapes.
Loren Holmes photo
Taku Elementary cafeteria manager Nancy Arnold makes hot lunches for students. She prepares 300 meals a day for the students. October 3, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Taku Elementary cafeteria manager Nancy Arnold scans pre-paid cards that allow students to pay for lunches. The computer keeps track of which students pay the full price, which receive discounted meals, and which receive free meals, and families can top-up the cards online. October 3, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Uneaten containers of carrots and grapes pile up on Taku Elementary school's "share table." Students are required to take a certain amount of fresh fruits and vegetables, but aren't required to eat them. October 3, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Workers preparing school lunches at the Anchorage School District's central kitchen. ASD prepares 17,000-18,000 meals each school day. October 3, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Workers preparing lasagna for school lunches at the Anchorage School District's central kitchen. ASD prepares 17,000-18,000 meals each school day. October 3, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
The Anchorage School District's recipe for spaghetti sauce calls for 1283 lbs of tomatos. October 3, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
The Anchorage School District's central kitchen has row after row of dry goods storage, necessary to feed over 17,000 meals daily. October 3, 2012
Loren Holmes photo

Take a peek at students eating lunch at Taku Elementary in Midtown Anchorage, and things might not look too different from years past. Between the students snacking on Fruit by the Foot, Go-Gurt and home-packed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are the lunches elementary students have been eating for decades. Those plastic-wrapped, single servings of pizza and lasagna haven't changed much. What has changed, however, is the nutrition.

The Anchorage School District is coming into compliance with new U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulations that over the next decade will change how children across the country approach eating.

The district is already ahead of others in including more grains and less salt in the diets of its 50,000 students in Alaska's largest school district.

LaDonna Dean, the district's first dietitian, is in charge of making sure those meals are healthy and follow USDA guidelines. It's not easy; the district serves 17,000 meals a day to 83 schools.

Anchorage isn’t the only Alaska school district implementing the new regulations. From Ketchikan to Point Hope, schools are working to meet the guidelines, some of which were formulated to meet the specific needs of rural areas. Many districts have specific concerns, but there’s a universal worry. Cost increases.

Healthy guidelines

Starting this year, schools across the country are implementing the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. Most of the guidelines were finalized in January, so this fall is the first semester schools receiving federal funding start serving different lunches.

Here's how the regulations break down:

  • Calorie limits based on grade level;
  • Eliminating trans fat and reducing saturated fat to 10 percent of total calories;
  • Incorporating more whole grains. By 2014-15, all grains must be whole grain.
  • Eliminating 2 percent and whole milk in favor of skim (flavored and unflavored) and 1 percent (only unflavored);
  • Gradual reduction of sodium over a 10-year period;
  • Serving fruit at every meal;
  • Specific amounts vegetables to be served each week, including one serving of beans or legumes.

Previously, fruit and vegetables were “lumped together,” Dean said, meaning you could serve two servings of fruit and meet the requirement. Now the guidelines are much more specific, and require certain portions of specific types of food.

For example, dark green vegetables (kale, broccoli, arugula, spinach) are a different serving than red-orange vegetables (carrots, tomatoes, pumpkin, sweet potatoes) or even “other” vegetables (brussel sprouts, cauliflower). The district tries to include as many local options as possible, including carrots from Vanderweele Farms in Palmer and tortillas from Anchorage's Taco Loco.

'Healthiest option'

In an effort to make the new regulations more palatable, Dean changed how the school district serves lunch. Instead of three daily options, schools now offer two. One is a “home-cooked” meal “just like a family member would make,” Dean said. Options include lasagna, chili with cornbread and macaroni and cheese. The other is more traditional lunch fare: pizza, chicken nuggets, corn dogs.

Dean has tried to make non-homemade options as healthy as possible. For example, the corn dog isn't typical deep-fried, fair food. Rather, it’s a low-sodium turkey dog covered with a whole-grain breading.

“I strive to find healthiest option I can,” Dean said. “If you're gonna have a corn dog, I don't know if it can be much better.”

So far, Dean hasn't received much criticism over menu changes. The biggest issue has been at the high-school level, where daily Subway sandwich options had to be limited. Dean said it's not that the sandwiches aren't healthy; it's just that serving them every day would put the district over its grain limit for the week.

“Everyone loves Subway,” she said. “It's just a little too big.”

That's not to say the sandwiches won't make a comeback. Dean said the school district is working with Subway to come up with a daily option.

Changing meals

Of the 375 students who attend Taku Elementary, about 290 eat school lunches daily. The other 85 brown bag their own. Nancy Arnold is in charge of ensuring they get that food. Each day, she stands at the end of the food line, personally handing out milk to each child.

It's what she's done for 10 years as Taku’s cafeteria manager. She knows almost all of their names, and hopes that she's having a positive influence on the kids -- not just nutritionally.

In front of her was a table full of food. First up for the kids, a “cold pack.” On Wednesday it was three-quarters of a cup of baby carrots and a half-cup of dark purple grapes in plastic. Next to the cold packs are the hot ones. One day this week there was pizza, which has an eighth of a cup of vegetable (Dean doesn't count it toward the daily veggie count) and lasagna. The latter is made with whole wheat noodles, cottage cheese ricotta spread and meat sauce, which includes a blend of ground beef and turkey.

Behind the serving table is a “choose my plate” chart. It breaks down how much of each food group should be on a child's plate, with fruits and vegetables making up half the plate, the other half made up of protein and grains. Written in dry erase marker is where each part of the meal falls on the plate.

It's the cornerstone of the USDA's plan to bring school lunches back in line, according to Elizabeth Seitz, national school lunch program specialist for the state of Alaska.

“The USDA is trying to focus on what a healthy balanced meal looks like,” she said. “Children are accustomed to super-sized portions, heavy on fat, heavy on starches.”

Across the country, some schools have criticized the portion sizes and calorie limits, especially at the high school level. Some students have even made a YouTube video, highlighting how famished they are with tiny portions of food. In a Pittsburgh suburb, students have organized lunch strikes. But Dean said only high-school students who decline to eat what’s available might end up hungry.

Rural Alaska challenges

Seitz has been working with schools across the state to implement the new regulations. Initially, there was push-back from some schools. They worried it would be too much, too soon and that the new regulations wouldn't take the challenges of rural Alaska into account.

But as changes came, there's been lots of listening, which has helped schools come into compliance. Early versions of the regulations required a certain amount of fresh fruits and vegetables, something Seitz said would have been “hands-down impossible” for rural schools. Because of the feedback, administrators changed the program and allowed dried, canned and frozen fruits and vegetables to count toward the daily requirement.

In the Northwest Arctic Borough School District -- which includes Kotzebue, Kiana and Noorvik – schools have started salad bars. While they seem to be popular, according to Food Service Accountant Holly Lazarus, they’re challenging to maintain. Bringing in more fresh food can be expensive, which may limit how much food is served at each meal.

“The 6-cent (per meal) increase offered by the USDA in reimbursement for meeting these requirements does not even begin to cover the increased expenses,” Lazarus said in an email.

Seitz said one the biggest challenges has been trying to get schools to understand the new portion requirements while helping students make healthier snack choices. “They were so used to over-sizing their servings,” she said. “Now they're understanding these are the true portions.”

But in the Northwest, Lazarus said some schools offer a second serving of the main course to hungry middle and high school students, with the district absorbing the cost.

Not much peanut butter

In Petersburg, a Southeast Alaska island community of about 3,000, Carlee Wells is the director of nutrition for the Petersburg School District. The district was recognized earlier this month as a bronze award winner for the HealthierUS School Challenge, taking home $500 in incentive prize money for how well it adapted to the new regulations.

Wells said the biggest challenge has been dealing with the smaller protein requirements. Middle and high-schoolers are limited to two ounces of protein a day, elementary students half that. For younger kids, that means the equivalent of less than a tablespoon of peanut butter a day.

“It's very small,” she said. “The kids are still getting used to that. It's sort of shocking.”

Petersburg may not be as isolated as other Alaska communities, but it still has difficulty getting fresh food. But Wells takes advantage of the fact that Petersburg is one of the busiest seafood ports in the country, incorporating as much local fish into the meals as possible (Friday's lunch was locally caught rock fish tacos). Still, most food is barged in. She said the fresh food can sit on a boat for six days before arriving in town. If it's still good, she and her staff have to move fast to serve it.

Wells said the school district is having to pull money out of its general fund to pay for the program. "We could buy everything frozen and save on labor,” she said. “But that defeats the purpose of feeding nutritional food.”

Rural Alaska isn't alone in dealing with the costs of the new program. Ardene Eaton, director of the Anchorage School District's student nutrition program, said the increased costs associated with the new regulations are “tremendous.” The fresh fruits and vegetables are more expensive, as are the whole grain products. Plus, it takes more labor to put together the homemade meals at the district's central kitchen. This year the cost of an average student lunch increased 10 cents. Despite that, there are no plans to increase school lunch prices.

A slow change

Cafeteria manager Arnold said some of the meal options have children excited. Items like chicken-noodle casserole and whole-wheat popcorn chicken have been popular.

She does have to remind kids to take the cold pack, but for the most part things are starting to come together after five weeks of school.

Those cold packs full of fruits and veggies may be the biggest point of contention among elementary school students. After the 100 or so kindergarten and first-grade students came through the Taku cafeteria, four of the cold packs were left on the “sharing table” a designated place for kids to place their untouched meals for others to take if they're still hungry. But when the older second- and third-grade students came through, some went straight to the table, dropping off their veggie packs before sitting down to eat the rest of their lunch. By the end of service, several teetering stacks of veggies remained.

But Arnold noted the changes may help kids who don’t eat many fruits and vegetables at home.

“Sometimes it's 'monkey see, monkey do,'” she said.

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com