Locals learn more about Farm to School program
Heidi Zemach | For The LOG
Johanna Herron, of the Alaska Department of Agriculture’s Farm to Schools program spoke to the Seward Chamber of Commerce at a luncheon meeting on Friday.
How would you like to see your children offered wild Alaska-caught fish for some of their school lunches? Or maybe potatoes or lettuce they grew themselves, or hardboiled eggs from chickens raised here in Seward?
Several innovative efforts along those lines are being tried in schools across the state, often with assistance from the Alaska Division of Agriculture’s Farm to School (FTS) program, said Johanna Herron. She gave a presentation about the program on Friday at the Seward Chamber of Commerce’s luncheon meeting. All of the Seward school principals were able to attend because Friday was an in-service day.
Farm to School programs are growing nationwide, as well as here in Alaska, said Herron. Some 113 Alaska schools have school gardens. Even some of the most remote rural schools are doing things like bringing in fresh salad bars for students’ lunches, and turning empty classrooms into indoor food-growing operations. But they only succeed with a good deal of support from the schools, community members, and partnerships with area nonprofits, food providers and farm organizations, said Herron.
“It takes a community to make that happen,” she said. “The best thing to do is start small, and then allow it to grow.”
Under a newly-passed Nutritional Alaska Foods for Schools grant, administered through the Alaska Department of Commerce, the legislature has allocated $3 million statewide to reimburse schools if they wish to purchase or grow their own local food through June 30. Of that sum, Kenai Peninsula School District currently has up to $131,000 available. FTS also has a team that helps create local-produce recipes that finicky kids may like, such as barley roll recipes using locally-grown flour. A UAF school research project is underway in which students are developing a demonstration project, a toolkit for use in Alaska schools, product development and taste-testing.
FTS provided seed grants of $500 to $1,000 to more than a dozen projects at Alaska schools last year, and a Farm to School challenge also is underway that will provide garden-related prizes to schools for ideas worth pursuing.
Some of the projects being tried statewide are:
• The Schoolyard Garden Initiative, created in Fairbanks, provides hands-on educational opportunities in the schools, a garden connection for kids, and locally grown food for the community. The initiative created a network of experiential learning environments for teachers and students during the school year, and herb and food production gardens maintained by teens involved in Calypso Farm’s Employing Alaskan Teens in Gardening (EATinG) program during the summer months.
• Kodiak Farm to School is a community-based effort to connect schools, the community and local farms with the goal of serving healthy meals in school cafeterias, improving student nutrition, providing agriculture, health and nutrition education opportunities, and supporting local farmers. Its vision is to have Kodiak students eating locally-produced vegetables provided from a school garden and from local farmers as part of its school lunch program.
• The Fish to School program in Sitka serves local fish lunches twice a month at Keet Gooshi Heen Elementary and Blatchley Middle School. There’s also a Stream to Plate curriculum, taking students through the cycle in which fish mature in waterways, are harvested by local fishermen, undergo processing by the town’s seafood processors and finally grace the dinner table. The effort is led by the Sitka Conservation Society, which coordinates the effort through fundraising and procuring of fish donated by two processors. The students also visit fish processors and have fishermen visit their classrooms.
• In Dillingham, where many students are from fishing families, the local Peter Pan Seafoods donated sockeye salmon to two school districts, the local senior center and the Head Start program.
• In Nanwalek, a Cook Inlet village, created a collaborative effort between village youth and adults, the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, Smokey Bay Air and an Alaska seafood processor to secure fish for their school’s meal program. Throughout the summer, the youngsters worked with adults to catch, clean, fillet and flash-freeze salmon. Smokey Bay Air flew the 465 pounds of salmon out of the village, and shipped it to Copper River Seafoods for processing. It was divided between the village’s Head Start program, community elders and the school. Students also grew a potato garden and harvested 117 pounds of potatoes for the school’s culinary arts program and for village elders. They also did beautification work in the community, picked berries for the elders, and learned to make seal oil and put away seal.
Even schools in active fishing communities still face the challenge of having the students actually buy into the concept of eating fish at school, said Herron. That student buy in, and their active participation in deciding what project to undertake, and making it happen, is a vital part of making programs successful, she added.
There are a number of resources available in Seward, some of which Herron toured on Friday afternoon: a greenhouse and a kitchen at Seward High School; three local seafood processors and fish-distribution businesses; small family farms and AVTEC Culinary Arts department. There’s also an effort underway at the school level to create an outdoor-learning environment; and groups such as the Resurrection Bay Conservation Alliance, a local nonprofit that already has partnered with the schools on a number of environmental stewardship projects.
“I think the idea of kids eating locally is amazing. It’s a fantastic idea,” said Elle Zernia, with Captain Jack’s Seafood Locker. Captain Jack’s already donates the fish for Fish Fridays at Seward Senior Center. So why not donate to the school’s too? she wondered. The challenge that fish providers may face, however, would be meeting the food program’s strict criteria for food preparation and portion sizing, she said. There’s also the question of whether the students would eat wild fish, she added. Seward Elementary once tried serving a fish entrée like a salmon burrito, but the students did not eat it, so it was discontinued, said Principal David Kingsland. He is proud of the USDA Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Snack program, however, where two or three mornings per week his students receive a plastic cup full of fresh in-season fruits and vegetables as a mid-morning snack.
The challenge the schools may face with a school garden is a short growing season while school is in session, and difficulty organizing student involvement during the summer, said Matt Gray, of RBCA, who has been partnering with the schoolyard habitat program, and other environmental stewardship learning.
The Seward TYC (Teen Youth Center) summer program acquired its own greenhouse, and the students began growing things like tomatoes and green beans last summer.
The school principals seemed interested in the idea, but said it would take a lot of community initiative, and perhaps costly new infrastructure. The high school is the only school with an actual working kitchen and all three schools currently warm up pre-processed, pre-cooked food entrées for their school meals. The greenhouse has thus far only been used to grow trees to sell as an after school activities fundraiser, said SHS Principal Trevan Walker. He expressed interest, however, in possibly expanding the greenhouse and to linking it to the school’s home economics program.
Dean Hamburg, the nutritionist for the KPBSD, has been looking into providing fish sticks from Alaska-based Trident Seafoods Inc ., to the school menu, along with possibly other entrées such as breakfast burrito with reindeer sausage, or Alaska roasted root-crop vegetable dishes.
Meanwhile, the USDA-approved school lunch and breakfast meals offered in Seward, as elsewhere, are becoming more nutritious, with smaller meat portions, reduced fat, more whole grains, fruits and vegetables offered, said Hamburg.