Homer Alaska - News

Story last updated at 8:17 PM on Wednesday, October 27, 2010

School nutrition subject of public meetings

By McKibben Jackinsky
Staff Writer

Homer parent Karin Sonnen, who has children enrolled in Paul Banks and West Homer elementary schools and Homer Middle School, remembers clearly the moment she realized the importance of food served at school.

Sonnen's family had brought a young guest to Paul Banks' Bingo For Books celebration several years ago. At the end of the evening, desserts were served. Among them was a tray of fresh fruit.

"The kids loaded up on desserts, but this little girl went for the fruit and even took some home with her," Sonnen said. "It occurred to me some kids are not getting enough of these fruits and vegetables. It really hit me pretty hard and made me want to see that every child is getting enough."

Sonnen spoke Wednesday during a meeting a Homer High School, the first of three focusing on meals offered students of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District. The second meeting will be held in the Kenai Central High School library from 6-8 p.m. Tuesday and a third in the Seward High School music room from 6-8 p.m. Wednesday.

Before Wednesday's crowd of parents, teachers and concerned community members, Dave Jones, KPBSD assistant superintendent, described federal guidelines concerning student nutrition and gave an overview of the district's food service program.

For fiscal year 2010, the district's food service budget totals $3.2 million, with more than $2 million coming from federal support and the remainder from sources including the district and food sales. The state of Alaska is one of about 30 states that do not fund food service programs in schools, Jones said.

During the year, the district will serve approximately 900,000 meals, which is about 2,600 lunches and 900 breakfasts a day, said Dean Hamburg, KPBSD student nutrition services administrator.

Jones outlined federal guidelines and a history of changes KPBSD has made to make the program healthier for Kenai Peninsula students. They included removal of deep fat fryers; increased fiber, whole grains and brown rice; reduced portion sizes to decrease calories; elimination of locally produced baked products that include high percents of butter and shortening fats; and the introduction of USDA fruit and vegetable snack programs.

Jones also compared federal nutrition standards with the nutrients and calories in KPBSD lunches.

"Long before school starts, we create menus, do an analysis, determine how many times during the year to serve those meals, determine how much food is needed, try to anticipate what we'll get from federal commodities, put out (requests for proposals), get the food in, put it in the warehouse and then ship it to buildings in time so we can prepare menus and have food on time," Jones said. "It can get pretty complex and time-consuming and gets a little crazy at Food Service end of July, first part of August."

While appreciation was expressed for changes that have been made, those in attendance voiced the desire for more: the elimination of chocolate milk, the possibility of a sandwich bar, more fruits and vegetables.

"I really agree with the people talking about the importance of (nutrition) education in school," said Peggy Kleinleder, diabetes educator at South Peninsula Hospital. "It's not doing (students) a service, setting them up to be at risk for diseases related to obesity. I appreciate the work you're doing moving in that direction."

Parents and schools are doing more than talking about student nutrition.

In 2007, for example, Paul Banks PTA developed a healthy snack program. A PTA Wellness Committee also has been formed and has three goals: a better breakfast menu; replacing desserts such as cakes, brownies and cookies with fruits and vegetables; and improving district-provided a la carte meal items.

Other areas on the Kenai Peninsula share concerns about student nutrition.

"I talked to two people in the PTA at North Star (Elementary School in Nikiski) and they're having the same issues there," said Karen Wessel, principal at Homer Flex School.

Jones pointed to a collaborative effort between the district and the community of Hope to develop a vegetable-producing garden. Seward Elementary School is working with the Alliance For a Healthier Generation, a national program, to improve school wellness, according to Emily Mechtenberg, the school nurse, who did not attend the Homer meeting. The school is set to receive the alliance's Bronze Recognition Award.

"That means our school is working toward excellence in physical activity and nutrition practices. We haven't received it yet, but we're on the last step which is working with school meals," Mechtenberg said.

The final step requires additional fresh fruits and vegetables in the school meal program. "A lot of families have financial constraints that we as a school have no control over, but we do have control over what we teach them about nutrition and lifestyle."

Adults at Seward Elementary School are taking the lead by becoming role models.

"One area our school has really been working on for the past year is staff wellness, trying to represent the lifestyle we want our students to live for themselves," Mechtenberg said. "We already have a very proactive, healthy staff, so they jumped right on board with that."

Joe Arness, president of the KPB School Board, did not attend the Homer meeting, but plans to be at Tuesday's meeting at Kenai Central High School.

"If there are things we can do, we certainly want to look at them and make the determination if they can be done feasibly. We'll do what we can," Arness said.

Dr. Steve Atwater, KPBSD superintendent, told the Homer crowd the district is open to exploring changes to its food service program.

"We're here for that reason," Atwater said. "We're here to seek improvement."

Sonnen continues measuring the need for change by her observations of youngsters, most recently at the walking program Paul Banks PTA has organized for students.

"I had kids coming up to me … asking if I had any breakfast because they were hungry," she said.

McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at mckibben.jackinsky@homernews.com.