ASD says students, staff responding well to nutrition program changes

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ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - For students within the Anchorage School District who purchase meals or receive free ones, it's been a much different dining experience as compared to years past.

"Last year, before the menu was changed, I would go out to schools and come back with handfuls of complaints," said Laura Phillips, ASD Student Nutrition Food and Menu Manager. "I took notice, and decided, I'm gonna change this menu. We're going to make a sweeping change to the ASD menu."

Whether it was about taste, nutritional value, or overall quality, Phillips and her team overhauled the menu, altering more than 75 percent of the items available via ASD meals. Some things changed completely, while others were left alone.

"Our tater tots are healthy," Phillips said, pointing out an example of an item that was kept on the menus. "They're baked and meet the federal guidelines for nutrition standards. It's a vegetable, and the students love them, so that's why we kept them on there."

Changes on the menus range from small to major. While some items simply have lower fat contents, or perhaps have been swapped out for a healthier but comparable alternative, other things have been eliminated altogether - hot dogs and salmon burgers, for example.

On the other hand, Phillips and her staff have added numerous plates to the school menus. They've included new parts of both breakfasts and lunches, have added region-specific dishes such as Asian- and Italian-inspired plates, and are even hosting various lunch event days throughout the year that are tied to literary works. Earlier this year, it was Hobbit Stew, tied to J.R.R. Tolkien's historic novel.

But that's not all.

"This year, we added several new homemade bakery items," Phillips said, "because we really want students to kind of feel the love of what we're putting behind our food."

Instead of complaints, she said, she now has been consistently receiving positive emails from cafeteria managers, teachers, nurses, principals, and the like.

"In fact, just last week, I got an email from a principal," she said, "and he said, 'My kids are 13 and 16. They've never eaten school lunch.' And he goes, 'This year, they've only eaten school lunch.'

"He was absolutely thrilled, and of course the mom was happy to know there's confidence that they can get a meal and nutrition from food they love and get at school," Phillips said.

According to Phillips, data for the total meal increase is not yet available, but there is information from the six community eligible provision schools. Those schools are located in low-income areas, and include Abbott Loop, College Gate, Tudor, Government Hill, Spring Hill and Central Middle School.

Thus far, the district has served 772 more breakfast meals per day year to date, a doubling in participation over last year. More than 400 more lunches have been served per day, a 40 percent increase over last year.

"We took a big risk not knowing what kind of impact this would have on our system," Phillips said, adding that it took countless hours of work trying to gather the right info, find the right products and get the right food on the menu.

"To start the school year off with constant positive reinforcement about the changes has made it worth it to come to work every day."