For students at eight elementary schools in Anchorage, hot lunches that included maybe a corn dog, a hamburger or a square slice of pizza have been replaced with shelf-stable items you might find in a vending machine. That’s according to an Anchorage Daily News report this week that found that staffing shortages mean the district can’t provide hot lunches to hundreds of students.
Those schools are Alpenglow, Aurora, Bayshore, Chugach Optional, Kincaid, O’Malley, Polaris and Ursa Minor Elementary.
ADN reporter Morgan Krakow spoke with Alaska Public Media’s Wesley Early about what students are eating instead.
The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Morgan Krakow: Due to a cafeteria worker shortage, they’re missing this key position in eight schools. It’s a cafeteria manager, someone who usually preps like a hot lunch for students. So instead, they’re being served things like nacho cheese, chicken jerky, crackers, hummus, raisins. I visited an elementary school late last week and saw these sort of like cellophane-wrapped packages of food that students were grabbing alongside shelf-stable milk and juice. And it’s really not the same. It misses out on things like a vegetable or a piece of fresh fruit or a fresh roll, things like that.
Wesley Early: That doesn’t sound like the type of balanced meal you’d expect a school to serve to encourage learning. What does the district say about these lunches?
MK: You know, they’re trying to hire people to fill these positions. It just sounds like they’ve had a really hard time doing that. Staff shortages have really ensnared the district in issues all year. We saw that with a major bus driver shortage earlier this (school) year that led to thousands of students going without bus service for several weeks at a time. And now we’re seeing this manifest in the cafeteria as well. So I think they’ve mentioned that they’ve been trying to hire people but it just seems like that hasn’t worked out just yet.
WE: Explain how staffing shortages impact the lunches. If the food is there, what’s stopping it from being served?
MK: A cafeteria manager is this sort of specific position in an elementary school. A person comes in in the morning around 9 a.m. and starts getting lunches prepared. They have to have these like specific kitchen certifications in order to do that work. So without that person on site they’re not able to give out hot lunches.
WE: Is there any plan from the district to make a substitute for the hot lunches with something more nutritious than a vending machine snack?
MK: When I was at O’Malley Elementary, the principal mentioned that they’re going to have some slightly more appetizing refrigerated meals going forward. I’m not sure if that’s exactly district-wide or will impact all of the eight schools, but she did bring that up as something that was going to change soon.
WE: You talked to several kids at the schools about the lunches. What are some of the responses you heard from kids on what they were being served?
MK: Yeah, it definitely seems like these lunches leave a lot to be desired for students. They all really miss the hot lunch. You know, the popular hot lunch items were like pancakes and sausage or hamburgers and sweet potato fries — objectively delicious things. One student did say he felt like the cold lunch was good and filling, but a lot of them said, ‘last year we were having pizza and things like that.’