A heaping helping of health

Wellness policy serves to teach kids how to make better food choices

Posted: Tuesday, September 04, 2007


  The contents of and accessibility to vending machines like these at Kenai Central High School is one of the issues the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District's wellness plan addresses. Photo by M. Scott Moon

The contents of and accessibility to vending machines like these at Kenai Central High School is one of the issues the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District's wellness plan addresses.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Students in Kenai Peninsula Borough schools may find a little something extra in their school lunches this year.

"As we do our ground beef for tacos, we may add some sweet potatoes to the ground beef it really lowers the fat count," said Dean Hamburg, the Student Nutrition Services administrator for the district. "Sweet potatoes, in any form we can get into students, are remarkably healthy."

Hamburg, along with other district administrators, principals, teachers and staff, were tasked last year with looking for ways to improve the health of the student population when the district instituted a wellness policy. The goal of the policy, developed amid nationwide concerns for the health of the country, is to promote healthy lifestyle choices by encouraging good nutrition and physical activity.

The policy dictates that all food served to students in school meet federal nutrition standards. In addition, nutrition and physical education are provided to students to foster good lifelong habits.

"I love it," Nikiski Middle-High School Principal John O'Brien said of the policy, now in its second year.

O'Brien said the biggest impact the policy has had in Nikiski is that it has closed down the snack bar run by the parent-teacher group during lunch.

"They sold all kinds of stuff candy bars, chips, soda. When I first came here from Maine, I must say, I was surprised we were doing that," O'Brien said.

While the change may be in the best long-term interests of his students, O'Brien said the restrictions on selling snacks have hurt. The snack bar proceeds thousands of dollars went back into the school to help with the costs of cocurricular activities. Teams are now spending more time selling raffle tickets and finding other creative ways to raise funds.

"That revenue has dried up completely, but in terms of us not giving kids things at school that are not healthy for them, I think it's the right decision," O'Brien said. "I don't have any hard data, but especially the middle school kids, they're much calmer after lunch. The kids aren't as sugared up."

O'Brien said closing the snack bar has boosted the school lunch program because it no longer has competition from junk food.

Students still bring plenty of snacks from home, and O'Brien said he doesn't see himself as the food police.

"You still see kids come to school with a can of Rock Star (energy drink) and a bag of chips and that's their lunch. ... I don't think it's my place to intervene with what parents are allowing kids to come to school with," O'Brien said.

Plenty of information is available at school, though.

"We have health classes in middle school that are integrated through the science curriculum," O'Brien said, "and our kitchen crew does a really nice job of encouraging healthy choices."

Carolyn Cannava, Soldotna Elementary School principal, said the policy has fostered an awareness at her school.

"You're asking questions you never did before. 'Is this healthy? Is this in the best interest of health and wellness?'" she said.

Cannava described the awareness as a "domino effect." Students talk about healthy habits at school, and that sparks a discussion at home, giving parents food for thought.

"It's growing, but it's something that's going to take awhile," Cannava said.

Hamburg said the district's Student Nutrition Services, which serves about 800,000 meals during the school year, will continue to look for new ways to make school lunches both healthier and more appealing. Fresh fruits and vegetables are tough to provide in Alaska, particularly because the school lunch program is expected to cover its own expenses through government reimbursements and cash sales. Hamburg said he has about $2.30 per meal with which to work.

"We do attempt to offer fresh fruits and vegetables whenever menu, production, and most notably, season, allow," Hamburg said.

Hamburg said he has been successful in finding whole-grain products to use in school lunches. Pizza crusts, pasta, and even corn dog breading is now made with whole-grain products.

"The whole-grain corn dog is a little chewier, kids may comment on that, but we've had no decrease in participation" in the lunch program, Hamburg said.

Hamburg said students form most of their habits at home, but the school district is doing what it can to provide healthy options during the school day.

"Our goal is to be a small part of the solution," Hamburg said.

Will Morrow can be reached at will.morrow@peninsulaclarion.com.

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