A month ago I would have been afraid to ask the question, "What are Alaska kids eating for school lunch these days?" But now I know the answer can contain inspiration and collaboration.
In communities from Unalaska to Dillingham, it's increasingly the case that wild-caught Alaska fish is what's for lunch.
From teriyaki coho served over rice to yellow-eye rockfish tacos, the Fish to Schools project is gathering momentum statewide. The project was started by the nonprofit organization Sitka Conservation Society three years ago after attendees at the 2010 Sitka Health Summit identified serving local seafood in schools as a community priority.
Sitka is the ninth largest seafood port in the United States, yet at the time there was no local seafood on school lunch menus. A grass-roots effort mobilized in the Sitka School District, and now grades two through 12 are served local fish at least twice a month in a program that reaches up to 1,500 students. In the past three years, over 4,000 pounds of fish have been donated to Sitka schools from local seafood processors and fishermen.
Tracy Gagnon is a community sustainability organizer with the Sitka Conservation Society. She said that in three years "we've seen the number of schools interested in serving local seafood increase tenfold."
Last week, the Sitka Conservation Society released their "Fish to Schools Resource Guide" and "Stream to Plate Curriculum." Gagnon, one of the principal authors, said the documents function as a how-to for serving fish in schools. "We wanted to support the community and statewide efforts to serve local foods in schools," she said.
Using Sitka as a case study, the guide outlines procurement and processing strategies, legalities, tips and favorite recipes. There are other case studies from around the state, with suggestions based on program successes.
Sitka isn't the only place where fish is being served for lunch. The Galena School District in Interior Alaska offers chum salmon during the week to their 217 students. The Dillingham City School District has a Salmon for Schools program, serving around 8,000 pounds of sockeye each year. In Haines, local foods like halibut, smoked salmon and school garden vegetables are served weekly and 1,406 pounds of local seafood was purchased last year.
So how do school districts afford to trade hot dogs for halibut?
For the 2013-2014 school year, all 54 school districts can opt to purchase Alaska-caught seafood and local foods through the state-funded Nutritional Alaskan Foods for Schools (NAFS) program. NAFS reimburses school districts for their Alaskan food purchases up to an allocated amount. The total allocation for the 2014 fiscal year was $3 million. Introduced by state Rep. Bill Stoltze, this pilot program is meant to encourage school districts to purchase nutritious and healthy foods, including Alaskan seafood, meats, veggies and grains, that would otherwise be cost prohibitive. In its first year, 137,000 pounds of Alaskan seafood was purchased for schools across the state.
Gagnon said that if schools want to serve local foods or fish this year, they don't need to ask for donations -- they can pay for it. "Because of NASF, the financial barriers aren't there right now."
The Alaska Legislature has one month left in session; whether the program will be passed in the next operating budget is uncertain.
As a volunteer with Big Brothers Big Sisters, I visit my "little" at a Title 1 school in Anchorage once a week. First stop is to her third-grade classroom, and then we head to the cafeteria for lunch. On average, 53,400 Alaska students participate in the National School Lunch program annually, consuming up to half their daily nutrients at school. She always gets hot lunch (basically a TV dinner, wrapped and heated in plastic), and it's often her first meal of the day. Usually we hang out on Thursdays: burger day. This week it was Wednesday: sloppy joes and baked beans, with a huge square of Jello for dessert. Adding locally caught seafood and veggies would increase the opportunities for students like her to access nutritious foods. I wonder how Anchorage's allotted $650,000 for local foods was distributed among schools.
The reason the Sitka Conservation Society published a Stream to Plate curriculum with their guide is to pair the meals with education. The curriculum includes seven lessons about salmon, from their life cycles to how to gut and fillet one. "It's one thing to serve fish to them (students); it's another thing for them to experience cooking and/or preserving it," Gagnon explained.
"It's not just this isolated thing that's happening twice a week during lunch; they are learning about why they should care."
Shannon Kuhn lives in Anchorage and writes about food and culture. You can reach her at email@example.com.
Fish to Schools Resource Guide
By Shannon Kuhn
Food & Culture