School officials and Alaska farmers are raving about a program that's putting substantial state money toward school meals for the first time, saying the $3 million grant has improved student diets across the state and given challenged growers a reliable market.
School cafeterias from Unalaska to Juneau are suddenly dishing up everything from smoked salmon to crab cakes to halibut fillets. Plans are in the works for more Alaska delights, including bison stew, sweet-potato fish sticks and birch syrup instead of refined sugar.
Supporters say the buy-local program keeps Alaska money in state, gives kids healthier choices than heat-to-eat processed meals, and helps create food security for a state that imports nearly all its groceries.
They want the one-time grant continued. But whether that will happen is anyone's guess. The conservative lawmaker who came up with the idea -- after he'd been attacked for refusing to supplement the federal school-meal program -- said last spring he feared creating an entitlement program.
Rand Rosecrans, a chef who runs the culinary classes at the high school boarding program in Galena, said this is one government grant that should continue.
"I don’t see this as an entitlement," he said. "I see it as preventative medicine. Good government programs don't come along very often, but this just makes sense for the nutritional needs of our kids."
Rosecrans is referring to the 250 high school kids in Galena, an Alaska Native village along the Yukon River. Natives suffer huge rates of diabetes and heart disease because they eat more store-bought food and lead a less active lifestyle than they used to. The new grant is helping the students eat more of the wild fish that dominated their ancestor's diets, Rosecrans said.
With part of its $29,000 share of the grant, the Galena school district bought two tons of chum salmon from a Yukon River seafood processor 50 miles away that scoops up salmon with a fish wheel. Now, three times weekly, kids chow on dishes like salmon fettuccini and low-fat salmon dip, as long as it's offered on the right days.
"These kids love salmon, but you don't put it up against pizza. They're teenagers, you know," Rosecrans said.
But the salmon might beat the pizza soon enough. The district recently ordered fish smokers. Once they arrive, the school's student cooks plan to make kippered and smoked salmon with whole-grain penne pasta drizzled under Italian herb sauce. "The kids will come in and squeal."
The school district also used some of its cash to buy pigs, beef and ducks at state fairs, paying its distance-learning students who raise animals in 4H programs.
"Holy cow, the food is so good," said Chris Reitan, school district superintendent. "You're getting beef with no steroids injected into it, fresh salmon and pigs raised on local product. It's just good stuff."
The money is split up based on student numbers. The Anchorage School District will receive the largest share at $650,000, or about $13 a student. It plans to buy sweet-potato fish sticks made with Alaska pollock and coleslaw with Alaska-grown cabbage and carrots, among other things, said LaDonna Dean, the school district's new dietitian for student nutrition.
Dean said she's been working to improve school diets by offering more meals made from scratch, after hearing complaints from parents that the district's food wasn't healthy. The state money will help that effort.
"I'm really excited about the Alaska-grown grant because it's going to give us many more opportunities to help us expand what we're doing," she said.
Alaska farmers and seafood processors are gushing, too. Nearly all of the state's 54 school districts have signed up for the program, and the schools are buying Alaska food they couldn’t afford when they received only federal support amounting to less than $2 a meal. If the grant continues, Alaska's small farms could expand and better compete against Lower 48-mega farms with cheaper deals, making Alaska food more likely to reach grocery stores, the farmers say.
Bryce Wrigley, a barley grower with Wrigley Farms in Delta Junction, said he built the only flour mill in Alaska late last winter because he fears the massive food shortages the state will face if, say, a natural disaster disrupts the supply chain that brings in 95 percent of Alaska's groceries -- mostly by barge through the Port of Anchorage.
By coincidence, the Alaska Legislature approved the grant a few months later. So far, Wrigley has sold more than a ton of barley flour to districts. Southeast schools have served cream of barley cereal. The Fairbanks district has whipped up rolls. And more requests are coming in. Best of all, the barely is healthy because it's low-gluten, good for diabetic diets, and fresher than any milled flour in the state, he said.
"Alaska farmers grow a lot, but there's no market for most of our capacity," Wrigley said. "This program finally opens up some avenues, and once you have cash flow, you can improve, grow and expand. And there's a strategic value to the state in doing what they can to get a local food system established."
Jeanie Dougherty, owner of Merryweather Farms in the village of Gustavus, said she sold sugar snap peas and 50 pounds of carrots to the Juneau School District. She hopes to sell more next year.
"The best thing is, the schools are so enthusiastic about this and I get enthusiastic thinking about feeding kids something healthy," she said.
Like many farmers, she was caught flat-footed by the grant, and didn't have a lot of produce to offer. By the time she caught wind of it late this summer, she'd let neighbors raid her small farm.
"It was like, 'Stop, stop, stop!' she said. "But this year will be different."
That is, if the grant gets re-upped. If it does, Ann Pennington, president of the Alaska School Nutrition Association, hopes that schools, growers and seafood processors know what's coming. The program can operate more efficiently if farmers know what to plant and schools know how much money they can expect.
"It's a stepping stone that was greatly appreciated," she said. "They're attempting to help our programs and we don't want to turn that away in any way. But consulting with us and talking with us would be really good. We were all taken aback."
Pennington also runs the food program for the Alaska Gateway School District in Tok, near the Canadian border. Her district received about $32,000 for some 400 students. She's hoping to buy bison raised by Stevens Village to make stew, plus chickens and beef from Delta Junction farms.
What took so long for the state to supplement school meals, something nearly every other state does?
Many have blamed state Rep. Bill Stoltze, a Republican and co-chair of the House Finance Committee, saying he stifled a Senate bill in committee that would have put $2 million in state money toward the federal program. Anchorage protester Kokayi Nosakhere even launched a month-long food strike over the delay, saying more Alaska kids could eat if Stoltze would only let the bill be heard.
After the food strike made headlines, Stoltze came up with the plan to create the $3 million appropriation, said Rep. Cathy Munoz, a Juneau Republican.
Munoz had created the companion version of the stifled Senate bill proposed by Rep. Bill Wielechowski of Anchorage. Munoz said she loves the compromise and wants the funding continued. She'll look to Stoltze and others to help make that happen.
Is Stoltze up for that? He didn't return phone calls for this story.
Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com