Kindergartners line up for lunch in the Haines School cafeteria (Abbey Collins)

Kindergartners line up for lunch in the Haines School cafeteria (Abbey Collins)

School lunch is commonly stereotyped as unhealthy, bland, and just plain unenjoyable. But make that judgement in Haines and you’ll likely be corrected by both students and staff. A recent state audit confirmed the quality of the school’s food program.

The cafeteria is bustling with students, and a lot of them have really good things to say about school lunch.

“It’s amazing. It’s like French sometimes. But it’s like having a good feeling about it. It’s warm and fuzzy inside but something different more about it. It’s like…tasty. And delicious!..I like that it’s really healthy for you and it tastes really good… My favorite school lunch is buffalo tacos and I like that because I like buffalo and tacos are my favorite food.”

It’s salad bar day. That means a variety of vegetables and toppings, a choice between beef and barley or tomato soup, smoked salmon and breadsticks.

“We have oranges and soup and ham and croutons,” says first grader Olivia Wilde, “and fish, and salad and milk and juice.”

It’s not just the students that rave about the meals.

“I’ll have lunch here today. Usually end up eating here two days a week just because I can’t resist. How are you supposed to resist the food here, it’s fantastic,” says Superintendent Tony Habra.

“We have some fantastic staff,” says Habra. “Not only Brandie who’s the director but our cook who’s been here for years Dick Hass and all of the other personnel.”

The Haines School is part of the national school lunch program. That means they have to meet certain regulations. Every three years, the State of Alaska does an audit to make sure that schools are in compliance.

The salad bar in the Haines School cafeteria. (Abbey Collins)

The salad bar in the Haines School cafeteria. (Abbey Collins)

“It is a pretty extensive review,” says Elizabeth Seitz, the National School Lunch Coordinator for the state. She’s the one that conducts the audit. She says the school is responsible for meeting meal pattern requirements and nutrient standards set forth by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“The meal pattern consists of fruit, vegetable, bread grains, meat, meat alternate and fluid and milk,” says Seitz. “A reimbursable meal must include those five components.”

Then there are more requirements within those categories. In Haines, the job of creating the menu mainly falls on Nutrition Program Director and Wellness Coordinator Brandie Stickler. She works with the head cook, Dick Hass.

The school is also reviewed on things like food safety, signs showing the day’s menu, whether or not they’re keeping their logs and whether staff has appropriate and updated training. They also review the handling of USDA commodities, and finances.

Seitz says the Haines School stands out as having one of the best food service programs in the state.

“They work very hard to provide nutritious and balanced meals,” says Seitz. “They are one of our sites – one of our only sites actually that really gives the students a huge variety of fresh produce on a weekly basis.”

Reporter Abbey Collins tried out the school's food too. (Abbey Collins)

Reporter Abbey Collins tried out the school’s food too. (Abbey Collins)

The program wasn’t perfect though. There were three areas Seitz identified that need to be worked on. The first is the school’s wellness policy.

“But it wasn’t due to them not being in compliance with it,” says Seitz. “USDA had changed the regulations effective July 1, 2016 and all wellness policies across the state are in the process of being updated.”

She also noted the program could improve its record keeping for commodities and some additional training for Stickler.

“Other than that their program as well as their meals was outstanding,” says Seitz. “They have a very well-run program and it’s obvious they do a fantastic job.”

Clearly, many students agree. And I can confirm, the beef and barley stew is really tasty.