Most memories of school lunch involve fleeting excitement on pizza day and a general sense of disgust most any other day of the week. Look out, in Sitka schools, there’s a new hot food in town. That’s right, Sitka’s own local hero — fish.
The Fish to Schools program is currently organized by Sitka Conservation Society’s Community Sustainability Organizer, Tracy Gagnon, who also runs a 4H club providing kids with opportunities to connect with the environment and local food sources.
The goal for both programs is for residents, starting at a young age, to be more connected with their local, sustainable food sources.
With the 4H program “the students have butchered and processed a deer. They have seen that whole process. One of our students did an independent project and took a deer that he shot and worked with the tanner, worked with it until he had a finished product. We’ve made deer and moose stew and we’ve canned it. We have 30 or 40 pints of it. They’ve harvested mushrooms and berries. And they’ve made berry jam. They’ve made candles. We’re learning about birds next week, with one of the groups we’re going bird watching. And older kids this month are going to learn to build survival kits and then make shelters outside,” Gagnon said.
Participants will hopefully also go fishing this summer.
“Really, the intention is for students — for youth — to feel comfortable outside, feel inspired, and enjoying their time outside, but also feel like they have the skills to be comfortable out there and equipped, and to be able to use the resources it gives us in terms of food. And hopefully if they have really good experiences outside, they’ll want to protect it so that it’s available to them in its natural and beautiful states.”
Similarly, there is a Stream to Plate lesson plan that accompanies the bimonthly local fish lunches.
“We do an education component,” Gagnon explained, “we call it the Stream to Plate curriculum and we talk about how fish are caught, fishermen livelihood, we invite fishermen to the classroom and talk about how fish are processed, students visit the local processors who are donating the fish, we do an in-class processing lesson. Students, seventh-graders, actually got to gut and filet their fish and have an anatomy lesson, we talked about nutrition, the food system, we’ve talked about conservation and sustainability and we also end the program by cooking. We follow each step of the process.”
Kids seem to enjoy both the lessons and the local fish lunches, despite the competing food for Wednesday lunches — hotdogs.
Sitka’s Fish to Schools program was conceived in fall of 2010 at the Sitka Health Summit, put on by SEARHC, and implemented at the middle school level in winter of last school year. This school year is the first full year, with Fish to Schools at the elementary and middle school levels, and the program beginning at the alternative high school in February. The program earned the Best Farm to School award in Alaska last year, its first full year.
“The folks who attended (the Sitka Health Summit) agreed this was a priority for the community, to see if they could get fish into the school lunch program... So a group of folks worked together and in the winter of last school year they started serving local fish lunches to the middle school twice a month.” Gagnon said.
What’s on the menu?
“Right now it’s rockfish. We had salmon once at the elementary and middle school, but it’s primarily rockfish. There’ve been three popular dishes: rockfish tacos, Cajun baked rockfish and rockfish Scandia, which is essentially filets that are lightly breaded and have a little bit of Parmesan cheese, baked.”
Gagnon thinks the school food services program might expand its repertoire in the future.
“I’m putting together a benefit for the program later this month and we’re putting together a menu that we hope could serve as sort of a model — this is what school lunch could be, so we’re putting together a different recipe and different sides, and we hope eventually we’ll get there and have other healthy foods on the lunch tray,” she said.
There are two challenges the program faces, the biggest being, of course, financial.
“Local fishermen are catching it and we have two wonderful processors here, Sitka Sound Seafoods and the Seafood Producers’ Co-op, and they both donated hundreds of pounds (of fish) to the program. The fish was caught, brought to the processors — they’re donating the fish to the program and we the pay processing fee, essentially the labor and material costs, for the fish. It’s been wonderful; it’s a great relationship so far. There’s still a gap in how much it costs and how much the schools can pay, that’s why we’re having a fund raiser and we depend on grants and funding support.” Gagnon said.
The other challenge is for the food services staff members, who are preparing the local fish dishes from scratch, while most foods served for lunch are pre-made and ready to heat and serve.
The meals are “prepared in a central kitchen and then have to be moved to the satellite schools, and cooking fish so that it is warm and fresh tasting for a lot of people is hard. There are challenges, but for the most part, consistently it’s been pretty good.”
On top of preparing the local fish dishes from scratch, Gagnon said she asked a food service worker how things were going and her response was “It was crazy, it’s always crazy on fish day. There are more people who eat lunch on fish day.”
Gagnon and other supporters of the program see that as a positive, a sign that students and staff who don’t normally eat school lunch are eating on Fish to Schools days.
“The city assembly honored (food services staff members) recently with a proclamation recognizing their efforts in making this program happen, so that was really cool, to have the mayor sign off on that.” Gagnon said.
The program has so far been successful, Gagnon believes, at first 20 percent of students would eat the local fish lunches, but this year the range has been from 25-50 percent, showing growth as the program gains footing.
“We need to show policy makers that local foods are really valuable, that they’re delicious and that people want to eat them. And it’s the beginning of kind of reforming our food system and our school lunch programs.” Gagnon said.
According to Food Services Supervisor for the Juneau School District Adrianne Schwartz, Juneau is hoping to bring locally sourced fish to our own school district in the future.
“The Juneau School District’s food service program serves salmon (wraps) from Taco Loco and pollock from Trident Seafoods. There are no other local foods available to us at this time… We are not aware of local products being available to supply the quantity needed to feed the 12 schools within the district.” Schwartz wrote.
Taco Loco is an Anchorage based company, during a phone call, one of the cooks explained they started making the salmon wraps for school lunch programs because kids in Alaska weren’t getting salmon for lunch.
Looking to the future, Schwartz said, “We have started conversations with local fish processors to receive salmon donations from our community’s commercial fishermen this summer. In addition to this, we plan to set aside a day during the summer to receive commercially processed, canned salmon donations. We are also looking forward to featuring local foods on our school lunch menu on Oct. 24 in celebration of Food Day 2012. Our hope is to feature salmon and produce from local growers.”
Regarding other local foods in Southeast, Gagnon said “There’s talk (of using other local foods) but at this point we aren’t at the scale and it would be great if we developed relationships with Washington, which is pretty close to here, or more in the interior where we can access local carrots or local lettuce or whatever. We do have a salad bar, so there’s an opportunity, but I don’t know if the scale, if there’s enough for us.”
Scale is an issue for school districts looking to incorporate local foods. That’s why the fresh, local goods are often supplementary to the less expensive options and appear on the menu less frequently.
School-based and community gardens can provide some fresh produce in the schools.
“The alternative high school we’re working with, I think, has submitted a grant to have access to a plot of land, where they’re going to be growing — the intention is for them to be supplementing their lunch program with locally grown foods, which is awesome.” Gagnon said.
To make better food financially feasible local food programs rely on grants, donations and crossed fingers for increased funding from government sources for school lunch programs.
“I personally am so excited to see this get started in other communities. It just makes sense,” Gagnon said. SCS is applying for a grant that would allow them to dedicate time to talking with other communities and creating a tool kit for schools interested in incorporating local fish. While each community is unique, Gagnon hopes they can help improve school lunches at a broader level statewide.
They say it takes a village to raise a kid, and Schwartz provided a few options for community members to help get fresh, local fish on school lunch trays.
•Any community member can donate commercially processed canned salmon
•Local food processors can donate or provide at reduced rate per pound any of the seafood they process
• Local growers can donate or provide at reduced rate per pound any of the fruits and vegetables they grow
“We do have an issue with storage, so would need folks interested in donating to contact either me at 780-1414 or our food service manager Greg Regester at 780-2052 prior to making a donation.” Schwartz said.
In case there are concerns about the local fish dishes being served, with school lunches bad rap, even the first lady, Sandy Parnell, has had a taste and Sitka’s Raven Radio reports she found it delicious.
• Contact Neighbors editor Melissa Griffiths at 523-2272 or at email@example.com.