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Seeking healthier schools in Petersburg


Jess Field / Petersburg Pilot

Kindergarten students enjoy a beef stew lunch with homemade rolls at Stedman Elementary School on Wednesday. Many of the students took full advantage of the fruits and vegetables available at the salad bar.

Five years ago, when Carlee Johnson was offered a meal at the Petersburg school, it did not go well. Johnson was applying for the food service director position at the time, and believes it was some sort of pizza dish.

"When I walked in for my interview, and they gave me a lunch that day," says Johnson, food service director with the Petersburg School District. "I told them, 'I will not keep this menu the same way. So if you want someone to come in here and do it the same way, you're asking the wrong person.'"

The district only had the ability to warm up overly processed meals, but a lot has changed with Johnson in charge.

"I just try to be resourceful and every chance I can I go out and get grants," Johnson says. "That's how we got our salad bar, that's how we got our new oven."

Unfortunately, grant money for food service is declining, but Johnson who grew up in Montana learned how to cook on a tight budget from a young age. After growing up having a lot of casseroles and one dish meals, being resourceful is just her nature. Adapting to losing grant money is a valuable skill and just means having to work harder to keep things healthy, she says.

This fall, students benefited from a moose gifted to the school after it was illegally killed. Johnson turned the delicious meat into moose chili and moose tacos, and the students had moose roast for Thanksgiving. Johnson says it takes 40-pounds of cooked product to complete one day of service, and the moose went a long way to saving money.

"It was perfect, it was awesome," she says.

Everything that Johnson does in the kitchen is regulated by requirements set in the healthy living grant and Petersburg School District Wellness Policy, down to offering greens and counting calories and sodium content in meals.

Johnson is very proactive when it comes to getting fresh produce. She even goes as far as taking pictures of produce the school receives that is not up to her standards. When she first started some shipments were, for lack of a better term, moldy. However, by documenting the below-par produce Johnson was reimbursed by vendors, and now she only receives par or above shipments, she says.

The new breakfast program is also part of her strategy. It took three years to organize, but the program is now completely operational. The program offers middle and high school students a healthy breakfast after 9 a.m.

Johnson says studies have shown that students of that age range are not hungry before 9 a.m., unlike younger students in the elementary school. So, instead of only having a handful of kids eating an early breakfast and many just skipping breakfast all together there are now upwards of 40 kids eating at the breakfast cart, which is helping students make healthier choices once lunch time rolls around.

"Having the second chance breakfast gives them an opportunity to still have a healthy breakfast, but it's offered at the time their body actually needs it," she says.

Johnson is quick to credit teachers and her staff for all their help, including Carol Larson, who cooks and serves lunch and after school meals. Juanita Compton is in charge of salad bar and vegetable prep, and making sure elementary students receive fresh fruit and vegetable snacks. And Melissa Moore, an all-around helper does whatever is needed.

"By working together with teachers and staff, we have been able to change the whole concept of wellness in the district," Johnson says. "We all share the goal of a healthier atmosphere for our kids."

Ginger Evens, a teacher with the school district, also handles a lot of the grant writing opportunities. The healthy living grant she helped work on has really benefited the district because the people writing it really focused on sustainable changes that will produce long term results. Examples include installing water bottle filling stations throughout the entire district and purchasing water bottles for students. The changes have made a noticeable impact, she says.

"We encouraged students to drink more water and really pushed it out there," Evens says. "Now often times water is their first choice, versus a can of pop or energy drink."

Evens says the people responsible for restocking vending machines on campus have seen a decline of caffeinated beverages being sold. Coincidently, the water filters in district fountains need to be changed once, if not twice, a school year.

One of the biggest hurdles to making the district healthier is fundraisers on campus. Concession stands raising money for student activities like the music department, are starting to offer more complete meals during sporting events, rather than just processed snacks.

However, there is a loophole in the District's Wellness Policy concerning fundraisers like Krispy Kreme doughnuts or other food items that err on the side of unhealthy, when consumed in large quantities.

"By federal guidelines anything sold between the hours of midnight and 3:30 p.m. have to be in compliance with federal guideline," Evens says. "Anything from 3:30 until 11:59 p.m. doesn't have to be, although we are starting that conversation, as a district, about is this really what we want."

The district did away with the cookie dough sales in the elementary school that used to be a big fundraiser about seven or eight years ago. Small tweaks here and there will allow for change, without causing a huge shock to the fundraising efforts of students and student activities, Evens says.

"I think the Krispy Kremes are the last holdout," she says.

The recent cheer team fundraiser selling the popular, nationally recognized doughnuts raised much needed funds for the activity, according to cheer coach Veronica Maldonado. The team is trying to earn money to attend the March Madness Alaska State Cheer Competition later this month in Anchorage. The amount they need to raise is well over $12,000.

The fundraiser ended up selling 300 boxes of doughnuts, which helps, but the team still has a long way to go, she says. Maldonado is open to exploring other options to raise money, but her ultimate goal is taking care of her kids and making sure they are provided for.

"You're going to do what's most successful, and Krispy Kremes tend to be able to raise a higher amount," she says. "We would totally be open to something else if we could make as much money."


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