Second of two parts
The old-school lunch lady with her steaming fresh-baked trays has gone extinct. School lunch arrives at Anchorage schools wrapped in plastic. In school kitchens across the city, there isn't very much to mix, bake or boil. This is the era of reheating.
School lunch prep is centralized. It happens in a big Anchorage School District kitchen facility off Huffman Road. Many items come to the building -- Tater Tots, corn dogs, burger patties -- already processed. The facility processes them again, parceling them out into individual packages.
I visited the lunch facility recently and met Deb Stromstad, one of the district's student nutrition coordinators. She took me on a tour through the big kitchen, by the conveyor belt where workers were packing tots into containers and the huge oven where trays of rolls are baked. I peered into great big bowl of blue Jell-O.
Stromstad has been in the school nutrition business 15 years. I told her about eating lunch with high school students, and how some of them seemed to be eating French fries and pizza every day. It wasn't very healthy, I said.
"It's terrible," she said. "But that's what they go for."
The district meets government requirements and does its best to put healthy choices in front of students every day, she said.
"I can't force them to eat it," she said.
LUNCH FOR 24,000
Anchorage's school-lunch program is paid for partly by federal government reimbursement and partly by revenue from lunch sales. It serves roughly the population of a small city: 20,000 to 24,000 students daily. The district's average cost of each lunch: $4.63. Students who aren't low income pay between $3.15 and $4. The district's food operation has to "float its own boat," Stromstad explained. It runs on a tight margin and if it goes in the red, the people in charge have to ask the School District for money. Nobody wants to do that. So, it's essential to sell what students will buy.
I asked Stromstad what the most popular menu items are for high school students. Pizza, burritos, taco salads, burgers, Subway sandwiches, she said. Some items are healthier than others, but everything looks like something you can buy at a fast food restaurant. That wasn't necessarily the goal, but it is what sells.
Healthy menu items don't fly, she said. Baked potato bars. Salad bars. Soups. All fell flat. Once, years ago, the district tried kiwi fruit. It is both expensive and delicious. Lots of students threw it away. They didn't know what it was, she said. Waste is a big concern, too, she said. For that reason the district offers food, rather than serving it to every student. That's also why it sells food people know students will eat.
The issue isn't what the district serves, Stromstad, said, it's the culture we live in that pushes unhealthy food. The district's food program can't be expected to change the world. Student Nutrition is just in the business of serving breakfast and lunch.
"We're expected to try, so we try," she said.
We walked through a huge freezer filled with processed, frozen foods. The district has an allotted amount to spend with the U.S. Department of Agriculture every year on USDA lunch items. Brent Rock, who runs the student nutrition program, told me later that many of the items come from surplus food the government buys from farmers as part of government support for agriculture.
But school lunch is about to change. The federal government is considering guidelines that would add dark green and orange vegetables to the requirements. They would be served to students rather than offered. It would also move potatoes, French-fried or otherwise, out of the vegetable category. And it would finally place a limit on salt, with a goal to reduce the amount in foods by half over time. That will dictate some recipe changes for what is coming through USDA.
It will also cost more money locally, 27 to 34 percent more than the district is currently paying per meal. Where would that come from? The answer hasn't been worked out completely. The people who run Student Nutrition haven't figured out how they are going to get the students to actually eat healthier foods. Stromstad said they will try to sell students on sweet potato fries and they might puree some beans to add to breakfast bars.
A PROCESSED PROBLEM
Karol Fink, a dietitian with the state Department of Health, doesn't buy that students don't want healthier food. Their tastes are shaped by what is put in front of them, she said. Studies show kids can learn to eat healthy food just like they learn to like the taste of salty, sweet and fatty foods, she said. Schools are part of that learning process, especially for the nearly 40 percent of district students on the free or reduced lunch plan. For those students, schools provide both breakfast and lunch every day, often more than what's being provided at home.
It's not that students need to be eating only carrot sticks, Fink explained. The problem, she thinks, is when the schools rely so heavily on salty, higher-fat processed food that looks like fast food. Even making more meals that seem like what students might eat at home would be a start, she said.
"It would be nice if they could approximate actual food," she said.
There have been studies suggesting schools can get results just by placing less healthy foods in less visible spots, or by making dessert cash-only. Just asking, "Do you want a salad with that?" raised salad consumption 30 percent in one study. There is also the issue of education. Because of economics, of family practices or culture, some students have just not been exposed to healthy foods. Trying food from an early age is key, Fink said. She thinks the school district should have a dietician in the nutrition department.
Right now, students learn about nutrition in elementary and middle school, but often it's in the abstract. An elementary school teacher might do a unit on the food pyramid using plastic broccoli, for example, but some of the students may have never tasted it.
Schools in some places have some success with garden or farm field-trip programs where students learn where food comes from. Some districts even include "farmer trading cards" that tell students who grew their food. These have all proven to encourage healthy eating.
Students have to make the connection between what they are learning about nutrition and what they are actually eating at lunch. Sharon Vaissiere, head of the district's health curriculum, agreed the district could do a better job with that, especially with collaboration from Student Nutrition.
"There is a big disconnect between the nutrition we're teaching in the classroom and what happens when they go into the cafeteria," she said.
By high school, when students are at the height of body image consciousness and would be ripe for nutrition education, it isn't required.
In a small restaurant kitchen on Fourth Avenue downtown, one chef is trying make school lunch that seems like it came from home, rather than a drive-through. Jared Tyler, the 28-year-old owner of Root Down catering, has been running a small school lunch program for two years. He serves mainly charter and private schools that don't get the school district's school lunch service. He prepares about 300 lunches a day, delivering to eight locations.
Tyler makes most entrees from scratch. He tries to go as low-fat as possible, he's sparing with added salt and fat, and he uses organic and local ingredients when he can. There is only one meal choice a day, and each week a few of the meals are vegetarian. He includes fresh fruit or vegetables -- sometimes both -- each day. Like the school district, there is no dessert. Entrees include chicken noodle soup, homemade baked egg rolls, and baked macaroni and cheese. He makes pizza once a week. The cost to prepare each meal: about $4.80.
"We think kids need to eat like adults," he said.
And his 300 students do. At least most of the time. He does serve a version of a corn dog and chicken nuggets, but students really go for the "real food" meals, he said. Chicken with peas and yellow rice. Pasta baked with red sauce and vegetables. A few items, like tilapia, fell flat. He kept track of what was thrown away. The majority of kids eat the fruit or raw vegetables that come with lunch.
I sent his menu to officials at the district to see if some of the options could be produced on a large scale. The answer: They were unsure some of the meals met federal guidelines for the number of fruits and vegetables. And, the cost per meal was likely too high. Were the meals more nutritious?
"I would have to question that," said Sandi Hollis, the district student nutrition coordinator after looking at the menu.
Fink liked Tyler's menu better than the district offerings because it included a lot fewer processed foods.
The district has tried a few "home-style" offerings, like lasagna, for high school, but they never took off. Of course they were being prepared for thousands of servings, which makes it hard to preserve the home-cooked taste.
Tyler wants to grow his lunch program, start a non-profit and offer food to low-income students. Maybe recipes will inspire the district, he said. Maybe someday they could partner, to deliver healthy, even organic and local food to every student.
That might be a little ambitious. But who knows? There's no question we can do better than what we're doing now.