ANCHORAGE — The Anchorage School District’s dietitian is fed up with kids who hate their school lunches, so much they walk straight from the food line to the garbage.
So dietitian Laura Phillips and the head of student nutrition, Jim Anderson, have started to overhaul the school menu for the first time in years. They’re having students taste-test new dishes, from all-beef hot dogs to chunks of sweet potatoes.
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The plan is get more students purchasing lunch and actually eating the food they buy, Anderson said. But staff must walk a precarious line between what students want to eat and what their parents want them to eat, even as they wrestle with constraints like a tight budget and federal nutrition rules.
“Kids want hot dogs. Parents don’t. Some parents really don’t,” Phillips said.
Currently, about 40 percent of the school district’s more than 48,000 students buy lunch — others pack food and older students can leave school to eat. Anderson said he wants half the students buying lunch — and eating it — by next school year.
Phillips and Anderson, who both started at student nutrition at the beginning of this school year, said they plan to reach that outcome by listening to their customers — the students. Since the end of August, the department has continued to survey students on what menu items they like, what they don’t like and what else they want to eat.
So far, the school district’s whole-grain muffins have gotten the boot. They were so hard that students used them as hockey pucks, Phillips said. Students will also no longer have to suffer through sweet potato Tater Tots that turned to mush when reheated or the salmon burger that they reported as smelling gross, Phillips said.
“Most kids have eaten salmon where they can identify it’s salmon, but when it’s put into a burger, it’s not identifiable. I think that’s kind of why it lost its popularity,” she said.
Students told student nutrition staff members that they want to eat hot dogs, chicken wings, french fries and scalloped potatoes.
On Wednesday in January at the school district’s central kitchen facility off Huffman Road, an employee in a beard net used a box cutter to slice open plastic bags filled with frozen, precut sweet potato cubes that had a maple glaze.
Two women in plastic gloves scooped handfuls of the potatoes into small plastic trays that moved on a conveyer belt. In the other half of the tray, employees put five chicken nuggets. A machine at the end of the belt wrapped the trays in plastic.
The trays would then get parceled out to elementary schools, reheated and served for Thursday’s meal. Students would try the new sweet potatoes for the second time this month. Under U.S. Department of Agriculture rules, students must have at least three-quarters of a cup of a red-orange vegetable once a week.
The USDA has a long list of other rules that schools across the country must follow to get federal reimbursement for the meals they serve. The stricter standards started rolling out in 2012 and required more fruits, vegetables and whole grains in lunches. They also put limits on sodium, fat, sugar and calories.
Diane Pratt-Heavner, director of media relations of the national Student Nutrition Association, said the number of students buying lunch across the country has dropped by more than 1 million since the new standards took effect.
“Student acceptance has been a challenge as menus have had to change,” she said.
Pratt-Heavner said the Student Nutrition Association, a collection of school nutrition professionals, is advocating for increased federal funding so schools can afford to supply the more expensive food, like fruits and vegetables.
School meal programs are not supposed be a net cost to the school district, paid for partly by revenue from lunch sales and partly by federal government reimbursement, she said.
Anderson said that Anchorage’s student nutrition department hopes to break even this year. But to get federal reimbursement, it must sell the meals it prepares.
On Thursday, a line of students formed in Huffman Elementary School’s cafeteria in south Anchorage. More filled tables with the lunches they packed.
Gavin Swegle, an 8-year-old in second grade, bought his lunch. He picked the plastic-covered tray of chicken nuggets and potatoes over the spaghetti and broccoli. He also got a carton of chocolate milk and a plastic-covered tray with applesauce and a multi-grain piece of cake, sweetened with oranges.
Student Nutrition charges elementary students $3.55 for lunch, or 40 cents if they qualify for reduced-price meals. More than 30 percent of students across the district qualify for cheaper meals, Anderson said.
By the end of Gavin’s 20-minute lunch period Thursday, he had only tried a few potatoes, which had blackened edges. “I’d like to eat the potatoes if they weren’t burnt,” he said, adding that when his parents serve him sweet potatoes at home, he usually tries to feed them to his yellow Lab, Chelsea.
At the same table, 8-year-old Evelyn Wiegers said, “I only like regular potatoes.” Another girl pulled back the plastic covering the potatoes and announced, “This is so gross.”
Student nutrition chef Karen Richardson attended Huffman Elementary’s lunch to talk to students about what they wanted to eat. She wore a pink chef coat and carried a clipboard. At a later lunch period, she sat next to 11-year-old Carson Myren, a sixth-grader.
Carson told her that he used to like the school meals a lot more when he was in kindergarten and first grade. Back then, he really liked the French toast. Where did it go? he asked.
Richardson took notes and told him that they had to get rid of the French toast, partially because of stricter USDA regulations
Carson said he liked the current salad bar and would like to see more fresh food, like sandwiches or even a cereal bar.
A new menu
Phillips said the school district doesn’t have the staff to cook all of the food at the central kitchen. It currently makes some food there — like pasta sauces, chili and dinner rolls — but a lot of other food comes in frozen.
“We don’t make money here,” Phillips said. “We have to be really creative about how we use our labor.”
But student nutrition has committed to making at least one new homemade product this school year, which it has started marketing as the “breakfast treat.” Staff got the recipe from the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District. The treat, which looks like a cookie, has ground fruit in it, sunflower seeds and dried cranberries, Phillips said.
Phillips said student nutrition has started testing it in schools, and gotten positive feedback so far. “It’s really darn good,” she said.
Anchorage School District Superintendent Ed Graff said that, for him, it’s most important that students have access to healthy and quality food at schools. When Anderson was hired, Graff asked him to find ways to make the school’s food both healthier and more appetizing.
“I wanted to make sure students were eating more of the school lunches,” Graff said. “So they don’t have to worry about being hungry when they should be focusing on their learning.”
Phillips said that when she started working, around the same time as Anderson, she got a lot of complaints about the food.
“The complaints were so overwhelming about our schools’ food that there’s no way you could take a paycheck home and not do something about it,” she said. “It’s an integrity issue.”
Phillips said that staff recently started testing french fry and buffalo wing products. Everything is baked, not fried, she said, and meets the federal guidelines.
“I want the parents to know we’re being healthy,” she said.
The district rolled out all-beef hot dogs on whole-grain buns in December, the first time the item has been on the menu in years. It sold out at schools, Phillips said. Some parents, however, were outraged that the hot dogs contained nitrates, a common preservative in processed meats.
“Instead of saying, ‘OK, well then we can never serve hot dogs again,’ now we’re looking for hot dogs that are nitrate-free,” Anderson said.
Diane Peck, public health nutritionist for the state health department, said students get between 40 and 50 percent of their daily calories at school, “so it’s imperative that they have healthy choices.” She said it’s OK to have hot dogs and chicken nuggets “very occasionally,” but that she had not looked at the specific menu items offered by the Anchorage School District.
Other items that the Anchorage district plans to serve to students this school year include ham and scalloped potatoes as well as Asian-inspired chicken dishes and fried rice for Chinese New Year. In May, it will serve burritos and tacos for Cinco de Mayo, Phillips said.
The staff hopes to serve an ethnic-inspired dish each month and eventually a new menu item every week, Anderson said. After this summer, they’ll have the equipment to chop and package fruits and vegetables like apples, oranges and broccoli, he said.
Anderson said how students review items in the next few months will inform next school year’s menu. The staff eventually hopes to have two different menus that rotate between quarters.