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JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — Forget the days of "mystery meat" in school lunch, it's easier than ever to get fresh fish from local waters on the menu, thanks to the Fish to Schools program founded in Sitka.
With "A Guide to Serving Local Fish in School Cafeterias," the Sitka Conservation Society has compiled best practices, trends, case studies and more into one easily available publication.
"The beauty of Fish to Schools is that it provides a practical, local solution to a multitude of current global issues. In serving local fish in the Alaskan Schools, we are nourishing our kids and helping them become stronger and better learners, which is just what our future needs," said Fish to Schools Co-founder Lexi Fish in the publication. "Local fish is also the most environmentally sustainable choice. Exposing Alaskan kids to the history, traditions and methods of harvesting the bounty of our sea will help keep local culture and economies alive for many years to come."
When the program started, it was a localized community effort spearheaded by the SCS, local schools, families and fishermen.
"The beauty of the program is that it was a grassroots effort from the beginning," said SCS Community Sustainability Organizer Tracy Gagnon. "Community members said they wanted to see seafood in the schools. We never said, top down, 'This is what's going to happen.' It's community, parent and child-driven."
The program started in 2010 and Gagnon joined the team in 2011. It's grown a lot since then.
"My project since the beginning has been developing a resource guide and curriculum," Gagnon said. "A lot of folks contact us — 'We want to serve seafood, where do we start?' Here's a concise guide with information folks need to know, and case studies that show there are ways to go about this and be successful."
The success can be measured with more students choosing to eat fish for school lunch, and more students choosing to eat school lunch on fish days, including brown-baggers. Even teachers and community members have joined students in enjoying a plate of local fish.
The program and creation of the publication has been made possible with support from a number of organizations and widespread community support, including a Community Transformation Grant from SEARHC (a grant program that will end in September of this year), and a grant for Nutritional Alaskan Foods in Schools from the State of Alaska, which is in its third year. The state grant isn't a sure thing either, as it is part of the capital budget and subject to votes and vetoes.
"We have to go through this every year. That money isn't secure," Gagnon said. "We've been trying to advocate for that funding. It has increased local food use in districts significantly. It's a win-win-win across the board. We hope it will move into the operating budget and become permanent."
Thanks to such funding and the resources made available, Fish to Schools and local food programs are sweeping the state. Juneau has had salmon and halibut on the menu, served throughout the district. And case studies in the resource guide show how different schools have done it.
"We show case studies, different programs around the state. They all work a little differently. They're very community adapted," Gagnon said.
Galena, she said, does a lot of processing on-site, with fish coming in still with heads and innards. Juneau, on the other hand, works with fillets, requiring less processing.
"There isn't one proper way," Gagnon said.
The resource guide offers the case studies, allowing for communities to make choices that fit, but also offers guidelines on legality, procurement and processing strategies, advice on securing donations, plus recipes and the Stream to Plate curriculum that Sitka schools have used to accompany their Fish to Schools program.
"We pair the fish lunch program with a curriculum... (that) allows students to really connect to what they're eating. They know why it's important, and choosing fish isn't just about taste, it's about supporting the fisherman we met last week, it supports our community, our parents. We're empowering them to make better food choices," Gagnon said.
For these reasons, and possibly more, local fish for school lunch has been successful in Sitka. So successful, in fact, that they are hoping to serve local fish once a week, rather than twice monthly as they do now. Gagnon also shared that Fish to Schools will see its first fish lunch served at Baranof Elementary School in a couple weeks, which means every public school in Sitka will be serving local fish.
"We see this as part of a larger food movement," Gagnon said. "It can catalyze local food production and harvest. We get healthier lunches. Local food, and also an economic boost to food producers in the state."
Information from: Juneau (Alaska) Empire, http://www.juneauempire.com