SITKA-- After the rush during the first lunch session at Blatchley Middle School on a recent Monday, a student approached the counter and asked for a fish taco.
He'd heard good buzz in the lunch room and wanted to sample the menu item, which featured local Pacific cod wrapped in a tortilla.
Then came another student, and another, each telling a similar story.
Roxanne Didrickson, a food service worker in her second year at the school, added three tacos to her tally, bringing the total for the first lunch to 24. She'd prepared 48 fish tacos for the day, and was pleased to have hit the number for the first session.
During the second lunch session at Blatchley, Houston served another 17 fish tacos, bringing the day's total to 41. In all, 131 students bought lunch at the school the same day, meaning just more than 31 percent of those students took advantage of the local fish option, which was competing with deli sandwiches and corn dogs.
"Basically, I thought we did really good," said Didrickson.
Jim Moorman, the director of food services for the Sitka School District, said that when the local fish program began at Blatchley earlier this year, he was hoping about 20 percent of students would take part. Moorman has been in the food services industry for 40 years, and said it can be tough to get kids to pick healthier options. So far, though, the Blatchley students seem to have taken to the local fish program.
"They're eating it," Moorman said Monday. "I'm surprised. It's a new thing we're doing; we're kind of reaching around in the dark."
Moorman and Didrickson both work directly for NANA Management Services, an arm of NANA Regional Corporation, Inc, an Anchorage-based Native corporation. NANA holds the food services contract to provide lunches at the Sitka schools.
Putting fish in the local schools was established as a goal as the 2010 Sitka Health Summit. Since then, Lexi Fish and Beth Short have taken over the program, which is getting support from the Sitka Conservation Society, where Fish works.
A March 28 lunch was the third time local fish was served to students at Blatchley, and Short and Fish have lined up enough fish from local processors to keep the program going through the end of the school year.
Local fish will be served at the middle school twice in April and twice in May.
Sitka Sound Seafoods and Sitka Seafood Producers Cooperative have each donated about 20 pounds a month for the program, Fish said.
Moorman said the first time local fish was served at Blatchley, back in January, about 20 percent of students who bought lunch took part. The numbers were up over 30 percent the second time around, and hit 32 percent Monday, despite it being the first day after spring break.
Moorman, Didrickson and teachers all said the program maight have done better if the students had a little more notice. But in that context, 32 percent for the day was even more encouraging, Moorman said.
About half of the approximately 260 students at Blatchley bring their lunch to school each day, and organizers of the local fish program are hopeful that some of them will buy a hot lunch on the days when local fish is served.
Some of the students in Emily Demmert's seventh grade computer applications class are in that boat.
They said they typically bring their lunch to school, but would consider buying menu items that involve local fish.
Demmert's five students -- Jomaline Arce, Derek Merideth, Naomi Ferster, Caitlin Revolinski and McKay Parsons -- recently prepared a video to promote the local fish program, interviewing school staff and students in a film that is available on YouTube.
For a recent meal, Moorman and his staff received fillets of Pacific cod, also known as gray cod. They cut the fish into portions, breaded them and baked them for the tacos. The tacos were fairly popular, but getting kids to eat healthy is always easier said than done. Childhood stalwarts like chicken nuggets, pizza and hot dogs, are tough competition.
But growing up in one of the busiest fishing ports in the country, many local students eat a lot of fish at home.
Moorman said he'd like to expand the program to all the buildings in the Sitka School District. He'd also like to put local fish on the menu at Mt. Edgecumbe. He said it would be interesting to see how the program would go over at MEHS, where a majority of the kids are from villages where fish is a staple of their diet.
One issue that puts the future of the program in question is the cost. Fish said NANA typically spends about $1.30 a pound on the protein for school lunches, while local fish costs at least $4.30 a pound.
The local processors have made the program possible this year through donations, but revenue is needed to keep it going.
Fish, like Moorman, wants to expand the program. Currently, she's in the process of seeking grant funding to continue the program at Blatchley during the 2011-12 school year. And if things fall into place, local fish could find its way onto the menu at Sitka's other schools.