Anniston City Schools in Alabama operates six sites, five of them primary schools that won Gold Awards of Distinction, the highest honor in the HealthierUS School Challenge this past year.
That says something about the success of the nutrition department to not only meet the needs of the district’s nearly 2,000 students, 77 percent of whom are eligible for free or reduced-price meals, but also its commitment to fostering healthier lifestyles.
It’s not always an easy balance: For example, the dining department, traditionally known for its scratch-made breads, nevertheless made a successful switch from white to a whole-wheat product.
“When we made the decision to work towards the Gold Award of Distinction we had to make several changes,” says Ashley Alexander, director of child nutrition, maintenance and school safety at Anniston.
The first thing that had to be addressed were the menus, she notes, especially a transition from white bread and rice to more whole-grain products.
“One of the big changes was to move from a scratch-made white roll to a 51 percent whole-wheat roll,” Alexander says. “Since our child nutrition programs are known for our delicious breads, this was a really big change.”
Initially the students were not happy, but after trying them several times they became accustomed to the new roll, she adds. “The rolls looked the same in size and the texture remained tender. The change was the slightly darker roll. In addition, we changed from white hamburger buns and hotdog buns to a whole-wheat product.”
The daily fruit offerings were also enhanced.
“We added fresh fruit to the menu at least two times per week,” Alexander says. “The children love fresh fruit so this change was easy. [Meanwhile,] our vegetable offerings changed to add a dark orange vegetable and dark green vegetable each week. This didn’t change our offerings because we were already serving fresh carrots and steamed broccoli each week.”
To bolster the physical education/fitness component, small and quick activity breaks, such as jumping jacks, were added during the regular school day.
The typical elementary school menu at Anniston usually includes two scratch made meals and three hot sandwiches each week.
“You will see fresh carrots, fresh fruit, whole-grain breads, dark leafy vegetables and only one white potato product per week,” Alexander offers.
In the middle and high school there are two entrees each school day with a scratch-made entrée typically offered at least two or three days a week. These include housemade spaghetti, beef-a-roni, cheesy chicken casserole and other casseroles.
“All of our breads (including pizza) are whole-grain products,” Alexander emphasizes. “We only use low-fat cheeses and milk in our kitchens and utilize USDA donated foods throughout our menus. For instance, one week we had Alabama-grown watermelon on our serving lines at lunch. Watermelon is a huge hit with all of our students. We are in the South and watermelon is as Southern as it gets.”
The menus also include vegetables such as collard greens, cheesy steamed broccoli, spinach romaine salad and fresh baby carrots.
“The key to getting students to eat and enjoy our fruits and vegetables is to prepare ones that they would eat at home,” Alexander observes.
That also extends to the rest of the menu, she adds.
“When I plan the menus I stop and think about what the students like to eat, not what I like to eat. Children these days have expectations about what they are going to see at breakfast and lunch. They want the fast food-type meals that include chicken sandwiches, chicken nuggets and hamburgers, but they also want food that they would get at home. That is where the casseroles and spaghetti come into play.”
On a recent trip to the district high school, Alexander watched students ask for the beef-a-roni instead of the chicken nuggets. “I felt a sense of pride that our students would choose a comfort food over the nuggets,” she says. “My staff worked hard to make that beef-a-roni a truly home cooked meal.”
Production is done at each school site, with about 40 percent of the entrees and 90 percent of the vegetable dishes being made from scratch. USDA commodities are used as much as possible.
Breakfast is a major part of the meal program at Anniston, with high participation at all levels, even the usually more troublesome middle and high school levels. The district sees about 70 percent participation at the former and 50 percent at the latter on an average day.
The typical breakfast includes a whole-grain entrée, fruit and low-fat or no-fat flavored (vanilla, chocolate, strawberry) or white milk.
“The children enjoy the whole-grain biscuits, pancakes, waffles and cereals,” Alexander reports. “At our middle and high schools we give the students the option between a hot breakfast or assorted cereals.”
All this is done without breakfast in the classroom or second chance breakfast programs.
“Changing to a second chance breakfast program has shown to increase breakfast participation dramatically in high schools,” she says. “We are currently looking at the possibility of doing that program at the start of the second semester this year.”
The USDA After School Snack Program is offered at all school sites during the second semester to coincide with Anniston’s after-school tutoring program. The menu includes a whole-grain product like a muffin and a 6-ounce juice.
“We have a rotating cycle menu that we use for the snack program,” Alexander says. “The snacks are delivered and consumed in the classroom.”
Between school years, a Seamless Summer Program operates at the high school and, typically, two elementary schools.
“These are open sites therefore any child can come to eat,” Alexander observes. “We advertise on our website, the websites of two additional school systems, send home flyers and put the information in citywide newsletters.”