As kids get ready to head back to school, the staff at the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District Nutrition Services department are prepared to fuel students’ learning with healthy food.

“We do a hot pack and a cold pack every day,” explained Nutrition Services supervisor Chris Johnson. “So what is manufactured today is what schools will be getting tomorrow.”

Last year they made more than one million meals; about half of those were free or reduced.

The challenge is making nutritious food that kids actually want to eat.

“We do taste tests out at the school sites to see if the kids like them. And we try to choose the ones the kids like the most so that we do not have as much waste out in the school sites,” said registered dietitian Diane Russo, the Nutrition Services department assistant supervisor.

The students are required to take at least one fruit or vegetable option, which can be a tough sell sometimes.

“We tried cauliflower and things like that and they really don’t like cauliflower. They get it once in a while,” Johnson said. “Broccoli seems a little more accepting. We haven’t had any success with spinach.”

Staff cut down on preservatives by making their own sauces — like ranch and barbecue — from scratch. They also sneak in vegetables by adding ground up pinto beans into chocolate chip cookies or putting Alaska-grown zucchini in cocoa muffins.

Johnson said there are a lot of guidelines that go into menu planning for a balanced meal.

“We have red/orange vegetables that have to be served every week, we have leafy greens, dark green vegetables,” he listed. “We have beans and legumes that have to be served every week no matter what we do. Half of all the grains we serve have to be whole grain or whole grain-rich.”

Superintendent Monica Goyette got feedback from parents who were concerned kids were throwing away too much of their district-provided breakfast or lunch.

She told the Mat-Su Borough Assembly and that spurred the district to retrain their staff on what they have to offer versus what they have to serve to students.

“We’re hoping that through that retraining that we can reduce kids taking things that they just simply to not want to eat,” Goyette said.

Some schools also have share tables so unwanted items don’t go in the garbage.

“If a child takes something and they decided they don’t want it but it’s prepackaged and they haven’t touched it, another child can pick it up and add it to their tray if they wish to to have more to eat,” Russo said.

It’s a district-wide effort to give kids tasty but healthy meals so the food ends up in their stomachs, not the trash.

To check out the school lunch menus or apply for free or reduced meals, visit the district's website.

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