By Jenny Neyman
To the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Student Nutritional Services workers at Soldotna Elementary School on Monday, lunch was a source of pride, an example of the carefully prepared and portioned nutritional efforts for which the school is being honored with a Bronze Award in the nationwide Healthier U.S. Schools Challenge program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“It’s exciting,” said Thresea Grilley, who this fall began her eighth year with SNS. But more important than an award is the knowledge that the kids are getting good fuel for their brains and bodies. Her two boys went through SoEl, after all, so she’s a mom interested in healthy meals, as well as a lunch lady hired to provide them.
So is Gerri Habighorst, starting her 11th year with SNS. Her daughter was in sixth grade at SoEl when she started working there. Habighorst said she’s seen school lunches get healthier and healthier over the years.
“A pretzel and cheese — they used to call that lunch,” Grilley said, ringing up the contest of kids’ trays as they filed past with their lunches — according to the menu, “BBQ chicken flatbread, golden corn nuggets, chilled mixed fruit, Jungle crackers and milk.”
“We’ve seen some definite improvements in nutrition over the years,” said Habighorst.
To SNS administration, the meal isn’t a collection of entrée, sides and a beverage as much as it is a careful calculus of USDA school lunch nutritional guidelines — so many whole grains balanced with a certain amount of protein and vegetables providing calcium, vitamins and minerals, all without going over limits of calories, fat and sodium. On top of that, it’s also a balancing act between food, transportation and labor costs against the price charged for the meals, the amount of reimbursement funding the USDA contributes and the balance covered by the district.
“We are asked to provide a complete meal for the cost of a cup of coffee — about four bucks,” said Dean Hamburg, director of SNS for KPBSD. “Fruit, vegetables, whole grains, protein, labor, transportation — all that for the price of a cup of coffee. But we are pleased to take on that challenge for our kids.”
To Taylor King, though, a fourth-grader at SoEl and a kitchen helper Monday, lunch
was corn, white or — more preferable to many students — chocolate milk, a scoop of fruit, a packet of crackers with Scooby-Doo on the wrapper, and, “Uuuhhhmmm, a taco thing.”
“There’s meat in it. And cheese,” she added after leaning in for a closer inspection.
There’s the challenge of school meals these days — carefully balanced nutrients delivered in a carefully budgeted system that kids still care to eat.
There are a few changes to SNS’s recipe for approaching that challenge this school year.