ANCHORAGE — At Scenic Park Elementary in East Anchorage, lunch begins with thundering footsteps and the distribution of plastic-wrapped ham sandwiches, pineapple slices and a three-bean concoction called “Cowboy Confetti.”
Kids with faces flushed from recess line up to buy Anchorage School District lunches that are, starting this year, federally mandated to be healthier.
New U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines that require schools to restrict calories, serve fruits and vegetables every day and reduce saturated fat and sodium went into effect at the beginning of this school year.
If schools don’t comply, they risk losing federal money for free and reduced-price lunch programs. More than 40 percent of Anchorage district students are eligible for such programs.
All that means fewer pizza days and more broccoli and bananas in the roughly 18,000 lunches served each day, said district dietitian LaDonna Dean
The district must strike a balance between serving healthier food and food that schoolchildren will actually eat, Dean said.
The biggest changes this school year include a shift to two types of entrees: “homemade-style” dishes like spaghetti or chili, and traditional school lunch fare like chicken burgers.
The idea, which Dean says came from community feedback, is that students should have a chance to eat something they might see being prepared in their own home.
“(Parents) don’t want their kids to go to school and just get corn dogs and chicken nuggets,” she said.
Those are still on the menu, but are served less frequently. Pizza only shows up once every few weeks.
Vegetables, divided into categories like “dark greens” and “reds and oranges,” must be served every day of the week.
Familiar foods like corn dogs have also been tweaked: they are now made from chicken sausage with whole grain breading.
“Our corn dog is actually pretty awesome,” Dean said. “They are just about the healthiest corn dog you’re ever going to find.”
Other changes include more local foods, including tortillas from Taco Loco in Anchorage, carrots from Palmer’s VanderWeele Farm and Alaska-caught pollock for fish sandwiches.
Part of the job is marketing healthy foods to kids as fun, said Dean. She could barely give away something she termed “Southwest Bean Salad” to kids until she renamed it “Cowboy Confetti.”
There have been some missteps. An optimistic introduction of meatloaf flopped but was revived after chefs retooled the recipe and added a tomato glaze.
In the 2010-2011 school year, 36 percent of ASD students grades K-12 were considered overweight or obese, according to a report from the Alaska Division of Public Health.
About a third of children and teens nationwide are overweight or obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
A school lunch report card released by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine this fall gave Anchorage a C+ for its efforts, based on an August 2012 menu sample.
Anchorage was one of 22 districts nationwide to participate in the survey, said committee dietitian Susan Levin.
The score was an improvement from the failing grade the district received in 2007 (too many potatoes on the menu) but the same grade as 2008, the last time the district participated.
Anchorage could improve its score by doing more to promote vegetarian options beyond cheese pizza or macaroni and cheese, Levin said.
“We’d like to see more vegetables or actual fiber,” she said.
At Scenic Park, Wednesday’s menu included ham or turkey sandwiches with cheese on a fluffy whole-grain bun, a side of black bean, garbanzo and kidney bean salad and canned pineapples.
The meal fulfills agriculture department guidelines calling for schools to offer beans or legumes at least once a week and fruit.
(The district provides fresh fruit three times a week, due to availability and cost, Dean says.)
Kids can choose cartons of skim chocolate milk or 1 percent white milk.
Part of a successful lunch is making sure kids are hungry and ready to eat, says fourth grade teacher Kelly Eagleton. The school recently shifted recess time to before lunch, so kids can work up an appetite.
At long tables, the culinary critics of the fourth and fifth grade dissected their lunches with surgical precision.
Recess activities such as rolling down hills make everybody hungrier for lunch, according to fourth grader Makenzie Bates, who sat eating a sandwich packed from home Wednesday.
She eats school lunch sometimes but hadn’t really noticed the new, healthier options. She was unaware that the beloved corn dogs were made from chicken. Kids, she said, like fruits like apples, grapes and pineapple.
But they were far from the favored lunch food of many of her classmates.
“That, I think, is pizza,” she said.
The fifth graders were harsh critics of lunch regimes new and old.
“School lunch tastes like, bluggh,” said Grant Aicher, making a grossed-out face as he peeled an orange from home.
Did students know that the school district was trying to make lunch healthier?
“That’s even worse,” said wide-eyed Cooper Lisonbee.
Yes, some food gets thrown away, said Mary Spears, who single-handedly manages the lunchroom and hands out food to the roughly 160 kids who buy lunch daily.
Teacher’s assistant and noon duty staffer Cathy Echols pointed at full, never-opened bean-salad-and-pineapple packs discarded in the garbage bin.
“If it looks funny to them, they don’t eat it,” she said.
Integrating healthier food into school lunches won’t be easy or happen overnight, Dean said.
Things like pepperoni and processed meats probably aren’t going away, she said. And the district must contend with cost and availability constraints.
But this year’s slightly healthier offerings are the first step, she said.
Fifth grader Lek Panoam got up to defend the three-bean salad tossed with lime-salsa dressing that LaDonna Dean and her co-workers had developed.
“This stuff,” he said. “I really like this stuff.”