Alaska’s Fish to School

Johanna Herron is the Farm to School Program Coordinator for the Division of Agriculture, in the Department of Natural Resources

I called her up because I’d been hearing about an Alaska Fish to School program and wanted to hear first hand what programs were going on. I understand some schools accept donated fish, from fishermen donating a percentage of their catch.  Processors sometimes donate their labor for fish going to school lunch.  There are quite a few programs around Alaska, and they all vary a bit. Salmon, rock fish, pollock, halibut, and more are all served and many schools get some or all of the fish donated.

The only project I knew of came from the Sitka Conservation Society in Sitka, Alaska. (Check out their awesome work by watching this video) Sitka Conservation was awarded a grant from the Alaska Farm to School Program.  This grant award helped expand their fish to school efforts to serve the special fish lunch twice a month. Tracy Gagnon (who used to work in Oregon!) and Lexie Fish (no joke, her last name is Fish!) are the people to talk to about this program. Lexie Fish worked for the Sitka Conservation Society and started the Fish to School project.  She pulled together stakeholders: fishermen, processors, school food people, and more. This was a bare-bones meeting where asked, if Fish to School were to work, what would it look like  and how would we do it? She was gauging interest in the state. Then Sitka won a small grant to start the effort.

I am really interested in the nitty-gritty logistics of Fish to School in Alaska. I’d love to know the costs associated with the project, and am happy to know that someone at Sitka Conservation Society will be able to walk me through the details of that program.  Sitka’s program serves fish every other Wednesday all year long.  For example, third graders brined and smoked salmon! (See the photo on the left of salmon about to be smoked. Photo from Sitka’s facebook page). Now that is something to aspire to!

Sitka won Alaska’s farm to school challenge. The governor’s wife wanted to offer support so she came to serve lunch and lead an activity during lunch and during class. Here’s another video from Sitka Conservation Society’s great program. Can you tell I’m excited to see a working model?

Sitka has someone who coordinates fish in the cafeteria twice/month. That person is essential to the program. That person can be me this year, for Oregon’s Boat to School project. If Boat to School is to continue after my Fellowship year, it is really important to think about sustainability. Cost is important to think about. It would be interesting to find out if schools can accept donations in Oregon.

Dillingham, Alaska has a different project, led by Peter Pan processing company in the town as a once/year fish day that brings in enough fish to serve once/week all year long. They only allow for Sockeye donations (photo below of a female in back and male in foreground), letting fishermen donate what they can, offering them a tax write off. The company then donates all processing fees so that the school can afford the program.

Kodiak also has a program that is just starting. Lollac’s program is student-driven. Students learn to fish and then use their catch in their school lunch. Overall, the school districts in Alaska are really spread out so student preference is really varied and the programs are varied.

Johanna emphasized that I really need to focus on student preference and education. First, if kids don’t like the fish, they won’t eat it.  She suggested on the day fish is served, that someone is there in the cafeteria to gauge how the meal is received among the kids.  Secondly, students might accept the dish more if they’re excited about fish through education. Posters are great because teachers can engage students using visuals.

Legislation passed called “Nutritional Alaskan Foods for Schools” and is housed in the Department of Commerce, Division of Community and Regional Affairs.  It is a pilot grant program that allocated capital funds to each school district to purchase local foods.  For more information, click here.  As a result of this legislation there are a lot of school districts that are now able to pay for locally caught seafood! In Oregon we could potentially use HB2800 funds to buy fish, following in Alaska’s footsteps.

Johanna Herron holds a BS in Anthropology at University Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) from 2004 and is finishing up with MS in community nutrition at UAF.  Johanna worked for 5 years at the Center for Alaska Native Health Research. Johanna also serves at the state lead for the National Farm to School Network, is a board member of the AK School Nutrition Association, and a member of the Alaska Food Policy Council.

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