Six years ago, the only fish being served in the schools of one of the richest fishing regions in the nation were breaded, battered farmed fish from distant shores. A conversation between a school district chef and a supervisor at Peter Pan Seafoods in Dillingham changed all that.
Now, a program encouraging fishermen to donate fish to the school lunch program is an annual event, and other areas of the state are following suit.
The Fish for Kids program is run and supported by Peter Pan Seafoods in Dillingham, and allows fishermen to allocate a certain number of pounds of their deliveries to the processor toward school lunches.
Organizers keep a running tally of the number of pounds of fish each fisherman dedicates to the program, with a goal of reaching 12,000 round pounds each year. Donations range from 50 to 1,000 pounds with as many as 50 fishermen contributing to the program.
In recent years, Peter Pan has donated thousands of pounds of fish when the amount donated by fishermen didn't reach the goal. In addition, the company donates the cost of processing the fish.
In the end, schools in the Dillingham area, as well as Southwest Region schools in villages in the Bristol Bay region have received some 6,000 pounds of boneless fillets. Some of the fish also goes to the Head Start program, as well as the city senior center.
Organizers say donations come from a wide variety of fishermen, from those who don't live in the region to those with children in the school system. It offers fishermen a way to easily donate some of their catch to their community, and is popular with both the fishing community and the schools, which often struggle with tight budgets. In some of the villages, parents and elders are invited to eat with students on "fish day," so the donated fish are feeding not just the children, but a wider section of the community.
"It works really well for the community," said Tom Whinihan, Bristol Bay manager for Peter Pan Seafoods. "It's just been really, really positive."
The best part, organizers say, is that schools are able to serve a locally caught meal to children, something closer to what they are used to seeing on their dinner tables. The idea has caught on in other areas, too, with people in Kodiak and Sitka eyeing the program as a way to bring healthy food to the lunchroom.
"It's a wonderfully healthy food for kids in the school system," said Whinihan. "Salmon is a part of their culture here."