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At 30 Anchorage schools, free meals for all

Michelle Theriault Boots
Student nutrition assistant Shelia Nevzuroff hands out free meals at East High School on Wednesday morning, Aug. 27, 2014. East High is one of 30 Anchorage schools participating in an expanded federal program that offers free breakfasts and lunches to all students. Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News

Around 7:15  a.m. every weekday, buses pull up to East Anchorage High School and teenagers stream out. More than 2,000 students will spill into Anchorage's largest high school before the first bell rings.

This school year, waiting for every student just inside the door is a free breakfast. And later, in the cafeteria, a free lunch. Under the expansion of a federal program designed to help nourish low-income schoolchildren, the Anchorage School District is feeding many more students than ever before. 

East and Bartlett are the first Anchorage high schools to offer free breakfast and lunch to all students.

A total of 30 middle, alternative and elementary campuses in Anchorage are offering free meals to every student this year under the U.S. Department of Agriculture's "Community Eligibility Provision" expansion.

Elementary schools with high poverty rates have offered free meals to all students for years, but this is the first time many secondary schools have been included.

The ten new schools serving free meals this year, in addition to East and Bartlett, include Wendler Middle School, Begich Middle School, Benny Benson Secondary School, along with Klatt, Susitna, Nunaka Valley, Northwood and Baxter elementary schools.  

The 30 schools qualify for building-wide free lunch because they have the highest proportion of students who live in poverty or meet federal criteria, including circumstances like being in the foster care system, homeless or enrolled in migrant education programs.

The expansion is entirely federally funded, meaning no state or local money comes out of the district's budget to pay for the meals.

At other Anchorage schools, students whose families fall below a certain level of income qualify for free and reduced-price lunch by opting in and filling out an online or paper application. A family of four earning less than $29,820 annually would qualify for free lunch under the federal guidelines for 2014-2015. 

The idea of blanketing the schools in free meals regardless of income eligibility is that it eliminates the stigma of a free lunch and give kids the nutrition they need to focus in school, said Alden Thern, the district's head of student nutrition.

Also, some of the neediest students who qualified for free lunch had parents who failed to fill out the necessary paperwork, Thern said. 

The district hopes free meals will lead to progress on two big-picture goals: better attendance and higher academic achievement.

The promise of free breakfast may help get kids to school on time, Thern said. And children who've eaten regular meals have been shown to perform better in the classroom.

"The bottom line ... is to feed kids so they can focus on academics," he said.

A school the size of a small town

On Wednesday, food service worker Gary Lund sat by the attendance door of East High as parents dropped kids off in driving rain.

East enrolls about 2,200 students -- roughly the population of the Alaska town of Cordova.

About 70 percent of those kids are considered low-income by district measures, said principal Sam Spinella. Many show up for class not having eaten breakfast. Teachers say their attention flags during the first three classes of the day, before lunch.

Kids without breakfast can be "sluggish," Spinella said. "It's like their brains haven't been activated."

Some teachers at East say they've purchased snacks to keep in classrooms for hungry, distracted kids.

Getting teenagers to eat breakfast is a "tough sell," Thern said. "But it's our biggest opportunity" to influence student nutrition, he said.

At  Lund's breakfast station, kids swooped in, grabbing breakfast packets as Lund ticked them off on a counter to gauge meal consumption.

By 7:05 a.m. Lund had already given out 40 breakfast packs marked "Kellogg's Jump Starts," consisting of milk, cereal, a graham cracker and raisins.

Wednesday's breakfasts -- which include Frosted Flakes -- do meet strict USDA nutritional guidelines for school meals, Thern said.

Kellogg's actually sells different versions of products, with less sugar, to school systems, he said.

"It's specially formulated for the school market. The entire meal has been vetted by our dietician to meet the USDA breakfast and lunch guidelines."

The "grab and go" stations are strategically positioned at heavily trafficked building entrances. Administrators figured teenagers were unlikely to make a special trip to the cafeteria for breakfast.

So far, about 400 East students are picking up breakfast in the morning.

Later, there will be free pizza slices, hamburgers and Subway sandwiches on offer in the cafeteria during the school's lightning-quick 22-minute lunch break.

Last year, about 600 East students per day, on average, ate district lunches. By comparison, last Thursday -- the second day of the school year -- the cafeteria handed out 1,428 meals.

At East, all students have the same brief lunch period. Feeding so many so quickly is a logistical puzzle.

"We had to feed 1,400 people in 22 minutes," Thern said.

Gearing up to feed thousands more students 

To prepare to feed 10 new schools' worth of children, including large high schools and middle schools, the district dramatically increased staffing and equipment.

Forty additional part-time food worker positions were allocated, Thern said. Not all the jobs have been filled.

The nutrition department had to buy new ovens and "hot carts" to store heated meals. Twenty-five new milk coolers were purchased. The department invested in 100 new garbage cans, anticipating more trash with more meals eaten.

Figuring out exactly how many meals to prepare is complex.

At first, food workers at East stocked breakfast stations with 1,500 milk cartons -- far too many. Now, they've reduced the number to meet modest demand. 

Waste isn't a big problem because some of the meals are "shelf stable" and can be reduced, Thern said. The rest can be re-purposed quickly -- for example, Subway sandwiches that go uneaten during lunch are served during an after-school meal. 

The price tag is also complicated, Thern said.

The nutrition department's budget is up by $2.7 million over last year. With more students eating the free meals, the district gets more reimbursements from the federal government, Thern said.

He thinks the reimbursements might exceed the cost of running the program. If the district makes a profit, any additional money would be used to buy higher-quality ingredients for meals districtwide, not just at the schools that offer free meals to all students, he said. 

A student could eat three meals a day for free at East, with the free breakfast and lunch plus an "after-school meal" offered through a different federally-funded program.

East principal Sam Spinella said he knows some people will question whether it's the school district's job to feed children for free, in addition to educating them.

Question away, he says.

"I'd much rather have us take the opportunity to (distribute the meals) than say 'Sorry, you have nothing to eat.'"