Tracy Gagnon, Sitka’s fish to school program manager

Credit sitkawild.org

Tracy Gagnon, Community Sustainability Organizer for Sitka Conservation Society (SCS) in Sitka Alaska, landed in Sitka after teaching at the University of Oregon and working for food-based non-profits in Oregon. Most of her projects focused on connecting youth and adults alike to their food source through hands-on gardening, farm field trips, and cooking. Her passion is working on food justice issues to ensure everyone has access to healthy, fresh foods.  Her focus at SCS is to manage the Fish to School program.

We spoke before the holidays and I explained this Boat to School project and my hopes that several school districts around the state would adopt the idea of serving Oregon seafood for school lunch. I wanted to hear more details of Sitka’s Fish to School program since it is such a great working model.

Tracy

Tracy

The difference between here and there is that Alaska’s programs start at the district level–or with help from a non-profit–and aren’t run state-wide. They develop within their own communities, based on what the communities or districts want. As I learned earlier, talking to Johanna Herron, Alaska developed an interesting way to pay for the fish in school lunches. Some schools accepted donations, while others took advantage of a state-wide grant to buy Alaskan food, called “Nutritional Alaska Foods for Schools.” This state-wide grant helps districts buy Alaska food which is how some schools can afford to buy Alaska coho salmon.

Because of the Nutritional Alaska Foods for Schools grant some districts are leading efforts for local purchase. 100% of districts have applied to use this funding.  This grant could serve as a model to other states–it is bolstering local economies and allowing school districts to provide local foods to Alaskan students. The grant was a 1-year pilot and it was just recommended by the Governor that the state pass it again for 2013-2014! This grant sounds similar to Oregon’s own House Bill 2800 which helps schools purchase Oregon foods. The big difference I see right away between the two states is that my project, Boat to School, is more of a top down approach, where I, in a state position can help many districts purchase fish. Alaska has programs that are on a smaller scale.

Sitka, Alaska

Sitka, Alaska

When I told Tracy that my vision is to have multiple school districts all serving fish, she wondered, how do you source all that fish? Where is the fish coming from, what is the cost, and are districts willing to pay for it? Are processors willing to donate fish or processing fees? She mentioned that I be sympathetic to food service since they may not have the capacity to prepare raw fish (lack of facilities, equipment, etc.).

Does the school do scratch cooking or do they warm meals up? Raw product takes more labor. Do they have the facilities and the infrastructure to handle raw fish or are they more interested in prepared items? What recipes will work for their population of students? These are all great points to consider, which is why I’m working only with districts that tell me they are ready to take on the challenge of fish. Oregon’s Bend-LaPine school district is incredibly excited about this opportunity!

Sitka, a fishing town

Sitka, a fishing town

I told Tracy about Oregon’s House Bill 2800 grant that provides up to $0.15 per lunch for Oregon products (including fish). At the time we spoke, I didn’t know yet which districts would be awarded the HB2800 grant funds, but I now know that Bend-LaPine district applied for and received almost money towards purchasing Oregon pacific pink shrimp for the salad bar plus buying sole to serve at lunch (for 16,000 students) twice/month! This is hot news.

It is important to think about how the fish is sourced. Is it coming from a farm?

Troll fishing

Troll fishing

What method is being used to catch? Is it sustainable? Trawling (dragging a net behind a boat) is banned in Sitka. Sitka Conservation only uses troll-caught (dragging a line with one or more hooks behind a boat) donations (specifically, coho salmon) coho and rockfish.

Tracy is developing curriculum for teaching about fish in schools. It is not ready yet but she would be happy to share after it is published.  “Stream to Plate” curriculum explains how fish are caught, processed, and prepared. She talks about the nutrition, resource management, habitat, ecosystem, food web, life-cycle in her classes.

Trawl fishing

Trawl fishing

Mostly, they focus on salmon for 3rd and 7th grades.  She still wants to add an economy and local food systems component.

Tracy guesses that Boat to School will be a harder concept to “sell” to students in Oregon rather than Alaska where fish is an integral part of life there and students grow up eating it.  She suggests piloting the project, something I’ll definitely do with Bend-LaPine! She added that rockfish tacos are not a hard sell to kids. In fact, it is a favorite recipe! The two most popular school lunches for her program are rock fish Scandia and rockfish tacos. She suggested I ask kids to vote on their favorite as she has found that approach to be successful.  Her program serves fish twice a month.  They are hoping to try a teriyaki salmon dish this year because other districts have found it to be successful, and Sitka piloted the dish with third graders– 95% of them gave it a thumbs up.

Bear eating Alaska Coho salmon

Bear eating Alaska Coho salmon

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