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Anchorage School District revs up to serve more summer meals to children from low-income families

  • Author: Tegan Hanlon
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published June 15, 2015

On an overcast day at Mountain View Lions Park, Nancy Arnold has two options for the children who arrive at her outdoor station: a ham sandwich or tacos. For the children, either meal is free.

Arnold, a site supervisor for the Anchorage School District, would hand out 99 meals by the end of the one-hour lunchtime. Across the city, 800 to 900 children, on average, will have eaten breakfast, lunch or a snack at a School District site, with the tab paid by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The School District has participated in the federal Summer Food Service Program since 2003. This year, it has two new sites, bringing the total to nine, said Tanya Krause, School District student nutrition coordinator.

Krause said she is hopeful the School District will serve "many more" meals to low-income schoolchildren this summer. Last year, employees dished out 16,000 lunches.

"We're just trying to be where the kids are," said Alden Thern, the School District's head of Student Nutrition. "Just because you're out of school doesn't mean your needs change."

For the School District, this means employees are serving breakfast and lunch every weekday for the remainder of June and most of July at Bartlett High School, Begich Middle School, Central Middle School, Creekside Park Elementary School, East High School, Muldoon Elementary School and Russian Jack Elementary School.

At Clark Middle School and at Mountain View Lions Park, the only outdoor venue, children can pick up just lunch.

At all of the participating schools, at least 50 percent of the student population qualifies for a reduced-price lunch, which cost 40 cents this past school year, or a free lunch, because their family incomes fall below certain levels. This also qualifies the site -- if it has a summer school program as well -- for the food program, Thern said.

Meanwhile, Mountain View Lions Park's qualification is tied to Mountain View Elementary School, one of 30 Anchorage campuses that offered free meals to every student as part of the federal program during the regular school year. The school has one of the highest rates of low-income students, at 92 percent last school year.

"This is a community that really needs it," Arnold said of the summer food program in Mountain View, which she says has two main rules: Diners must be 18 or younger and must eat on-site.

On a recent afternoon, the second stipulation sent children carrying brown paper bags that held an apple, milk carton and tacos or a sandwich to wooden benches and picnic tables. A few chose to have their outdoor lunch on the playground equipment.

Sarah Tapusoa and her 5-year-old daughter, Analei, sat quietly on a park bench with a nearly finished taco lunch. Tapusoa said her daughter ran over to Arnold's meal table after reading the sign posted on a nearby truck: "Free Nutritious Meals for all Kids and Teens 18 and Under."

"Oh, everything is good," Tapusoa said. "I know all the kids here. They have fun."

For the summer food programs across the School District, employees prepared about 36,000 meals. All were frozen by the end of the school year, Thern said.

Each day, Arnold said, she looks at the weather forecast and how many lunches she previously served to decide how many meals to take to Mountain View. It's an important estimate, since the hot meals not served must be thrown away -- "sad to say," she said.

After Arnold passes out a meal she clicks a hand-held counter to keep tally.

Across Alaska, school districts, nonprofits and food banks participate in the Summer Food Service Program, which continues to expand in the state, said Jo Dawson, the state's Child Nutrition program manager.

Between 2008 and 2014, the daily number of children participating in the program in Alaska increased by 164 percent, she said. She expects moderate growth this year.

"We've definitely been in growth mode and it's really wonderful," she said. "For the low-income kids, if they're relying on school meals during the year, the summer is a huge period of time not to have that support."