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Local fish earns high marks in school lunch program

Sitka’s fish-to-schools program launched in January, and is aiming to serve locally-caught seafood twice a month at Blatchley Middle School for the rest of the year.

I showed up in school a couple of days after February’s fish lunch. Luckily, this guy at the front of the line had both a discerning palate and a sharp memory. His name is Zak Wright.

“I think it was great. One of the best lunches I’ve ever had.”
“What was good about it?”
“It was nice and fresh. Most of the food is pre-made and then heated up. It was something fresh for once.”

Zak is in sixth grade. He was one of thirty-nine students who took fish over the three other choices. This is roughly thirty-percent of the 127 hot lunches served that day, and almost twice as many as those who chose fish in January.

Zak clearly appreciates good food, but I wondered if he gets the rest of it – why people are interested in eating locally.

“Do you know where the fish came from that was in your taco on Monday?”
“Actually no, I don’t.”
“It was caught here in Sitka.”
“Does it make any difference to you where your food comes from?”
“It’s cool if it’s from here because we’re using it from around, we’re not shipping it from other places, and we get to use less money.”

Okay. He gets it. This has to be good news for Sitka’s fish-to-schools program. Lexi Fish is one of several people involved on the committee.

 “My goal is that with more student involvement and parents knowing about this program, more kids will choose to eat hot lunch on the days when there is local fish being served.”

Lexi Fish works for the Sitka Conservation Society. Besides having the right name, she grew up in her family’s fishing business. She took on the fish-in-schools program last fall when the idea emerged out of Sitka’s annual health summit. Fish says she found immediate support for the idea among Sitka’s processors.

“It’s a relatively small amount of fish that’s needed per lunch. It’s about 10 – 15 pounds per lunch with twenty-five students choosing the fish, so it’s not that much. For that reason I think, the processors said, Oh that’s a great program, we can donate, at least until the end of the school year.”

Fish will be working next on outreach in the classroom to build awareness about local foods, and finding ways to offset the higher cost of local seafood versus other protein purchased for the institutional programs in Sitka.

Jim Moormann is the director of food services for NANA management in Sitka. He oversees meals in the schools and the Pioneers Home. Moormann calls the fish-in-schools program “unknown territory” for students, who have demonstrated a consistent preference for pizza. He says he was surprised by the favorable reception to fish at Blatchley.

“We served a soft taco with Pacific Cod, homemade salsa and tartar sauce, and the toppings for the tacos. It went fairly well.”

Moormann says he had no trouble incorporating local fish into the menu. His crew even offered a fishwich as an alternative to the tacos. If the program expands, the only limiting factor might be freezer space, but he doesn’t consider it to be much of a barrier.

 “It’s not a burden to do it. It’s much healthier, for sure. If we were to do the whole school district, we’d just have to increase the amounts, and that’s not a big deal for the staff that I have.”

The big deal, as Lexi Fish sees it, is funding. While donations are adequate to cover the pilot project, she’d like to find a steady funding stream to allow her to expand to the rest of Sitka’s schools, and inspire other communities to follow Sitka’s lead. Fish herself is following the lead of similar efforts in Dillingham and Kodiak, and the lead of the larger local foods movement.

 “You know in a lot of areas in the lower forty-eight there’s a big farm-to-schools movement where there’s locally-caught produce served in schools and kids learn about where this food comes from in their state or in their region, and for us, the first place to start with that is fish. It increases the awareness of what we produce, and what is abundant locally, and then there are all the health benefits as well.”

Fish anticipates that grants and donations will continue to be a part of Sitka’s fish-to-schools program for the near future. She says $100 can provide fish for sixty-six meals.
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