In USA Today’s photo gallery of American school lunches, Pacific High’s teriyaki coho salmon skewers stand out. The pink salmon chunks with silver skin attached, garnished with scallions, resting on a bed of brown rice, alongside roasted potatoes looks pretty sophisticated. Sitka grown ingredients sit conspicuously on the plate, in no shape resembling a nugget, or a hot dog.
Three hours before lunch, Oleana Valley, a freshman at Pacific High, and two AmeriCorp volunteers start prepping enough cornmeal encrusted rockfish, cilantro tartar sauce, vegetable slaw, and chips and salsa to feed twenty students. They’re trying out a new meal.
Valley: You just gotta feel for the bone and then grab it and pull it out. It was harder when I used to do this when I was younger I didn’t get pliers.
Valley debones rockfish like a pro – from years of practice. She is part of a cooking class at Pacific High aimed at teaching tangible culinary skills and healthy eating. Students can get a food handlers card after taking the class – a small step leading to employment. A few of the seniors work at restaurants in town.
Long: Perfect, perfect. You’re doing great! And that’s how you separate and egg.
Abby Long, an AmeriCorp volunteer, leads the class and designs the menus.
“It almost seems like eating locally supports Alaskan culture. Some people want to eat locally to reduce carbon emissions, or to support local economy. It’s so much larger than that here,” says Long.
She tries to incorporate as many local ingredients as possible. In this case local means ingredients from the entire state of Alaska. She needs still needs to consider the cost of shipping.
For example, Long says she approaches growers with specific requests like, “hey, mind getting a flat rate box and seeing how many onions you can fit in it for me, and pricing it that way?”
But, for Pacific High Students it seems the most valuable lesson comes from gathering ingredients from Sitka, rather than a flat rate box.
Pacific High’s co-principal Sarah Ferrency says, “students really love to be able to teach something to their teachers.” She recounts a time when students helped AmeriCorp instructors process crab:
They’re like what do we do with this? And so, these kids they come out and they’re like you do this, and you throw the guts on the ground!
Ferrency says scenes like this validate her vision for a student run, locally sourced lunch program. She says that working with local ingredients gives students the opportunity to share skills from their upbringing. ”It validates students, it gives them a sense of self-worth, and it helps them be successful.”
Beyond cultivating confident students, Ferrency pictures the lunch program evolving to encompass much more. “It is about breaking the cycle of poverty. If our students know how to grow and prepare and preserve food then that is one of their basic needs that they’re able to meet through their own independent skills.”
Recognition from the Division of Agriculture is nice, but it’s not about the prize. It’s about what students gain in the process. The next step is to make the rockfish meal as sustainable and replicable, as it is photogenic and delicious.