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School Spotlight: Anchorage sets the stage for healthy school lunches

In today’s School Spotlight, we’re highlighting the Anchorage School District in Alaska – a district that has worked diligently to improve school lunch and meet the new federal school lunch guidelines. We recently connected with district dietitian, LaDonna Dean. She began working at the Anchorage School District in April. Prior to her arrival, the district did not have a dietitian. She has been able to make multiple changes in the short time she’s been there.  Let’s take a look!

Marketing: What’s in a name?

With approximately 18,000 lunches served each day, the district has reevaluated the way they market foods to students. In an article in the Anchorage Daily News, Dean states that an important part of a foodservice job is marketing healthy foods as fun for kids. When she added “Southwest Bean Salad” to the menu, kids didn’t exactly jump all over it. But when she renamed it “Cowboy Confetti” it was a whole different story!  It’s important to have fun with it, because children will likely respond in a more positive way.

They also serve a “Garfield bar.” Dean describes this as “a baked good that is made with pumpkin puree, whole grain flour, dried fruit, cinnamon and nutmeg, so it has a kind of orange color to it.” It’s a whole grain treat, and the students love it. She says the students never noticed when they switched to whole grain flour.

In addition to typical school lunch entrees, they’ve added homemade-style entrees to tie school lunch to meals served at home. With meals such as spaghetti and chili, the students can eat something they likely see prepared at home.  Many of these meals along with new additions like chicken noodle casserole have straight forward names, so the students can identify what they are eating.

Bringing Everyone Together:

To take the connection between homes and school one step further, Anchorage School District has a monthly newsletter they call the “Nutrition Nugget.” This goes home to parents and features tips and advice for parents to help their students make healthy choices with food and activity.

Deans says “Our monthly menus have fun facts and nutrition information for students and parents. We feature a ‘Nutrition on the Go’ section for parents that talks about fat, calories and portion sizes. The menu has a ‘Fruit of the Month’ section that gives families information about different fruits.”

Not only are they getting parents involved, they’ve also included more foods from local sources in their menus. Some of these include carrots from Palmer’s VanderWeele Farm and Alaska-caught Pollock.

Tools and Resources:

With the USDA’s new federal guidelines, they also require schools to provide signage at the front of the serving line to show students what components make up a reimbursable meal. Dean and her team took that one step further and actually created their own signs based on MyPlate. Every day the Cafeteria Managers write the different menu items under the corresponding food group on their MyPlate posters. This has helped students identify what a healthy plate should look like and also educates them on the individual food groups.

Dean excitedly states “Our biggest marketers are our Cafeteria Managers! Their enthusiasm really sets the stage for lunch at the 83 schools across Anchorage. If they are excited about the food then the students will be excited. “

Advice for others:

My advice to other schools who are struggling is to realize you are not alone. I think that many districts are struggling with different aspects of the new regulations. It is important to reach out to other districts and see what they are doing and if you could modify a process to make it work for you. Think outside the school tray. There are many resources available to help with healthy eating which can be tweaked to fit the school foodservice environment. Finally, go back to the basics. Take a look at your recipes and what you are already doing and see if there is a way to improve upon it.

This is great advice from LaDonna Dean, dietitian for the Anchorage School District. On behalf of Learning ZoneXpress, I’d like to thank her for sharing her successes and I hope you can all take something away from this School Spotlight.


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