PUBLISHED: 4:43 PM on Wednesday, June 11, 2008
School districts serving up salmon wraps
Alaska school kids now can opt for salmon wraps on their lunch trays. The Mat-Su district was the first to add the item to its school menus in March, and the Kenai Peninsula followed suit last month at the 28 schools in its district.

"We feel it's so important to offer an occasional Alaska salmon portion to our students, even though it costs 10-15 cents more than a hamburger or slice of pizza," said Dean Hamburg, director of Student Nutrition Services for the school district. Kenai schools serve 900,000 meals in a typical school year, he said.

"Here on the Kenai Peninsula it's also a matter of pride because we see ourselves as a real home of red salmon," Hamburg added. "It's important to extend that community cultural tie to the school lunch plate."

The average cost for a school lunch for kindergarten through eighth grade is about $3.60, with 53 percent going to labor and the balance for food costs. That leaves about $1.80 to cover all the food that goes onto a school lunch tray, Hamburg explained.

The 2.5 ounce salmon wraps are produced by Taco Loco of Anchorage, and modeled after a larger 8 oz. version already popular at several retail outlets.

"Tortilla wraps are all the rage and there's a big push toward more nutritious foods, but no one was featuring fish," said Adam Galindo, co-owner/operator of Taco Loco, a family business begun by his parents in 1974. "Fish is Alaska's bread and butter and we're an Alaska company, so we decided to do something about it."

The Galindos pitched the salmon wraps directly to the Mat-Su and Kenai school districts and used feedback from kids' taste tests to tweak the final product. The response caught them off guard, Adam said.

"We thought they'd buy a few hundred, but the first order came in and it was for 6,400 wraps. On top of making the retail packages at the same time - it was kind of overwhelming," he said.

Galindo said Fairbanks, Anchorage and several Washington school districts are penciling the salmon wraps into their lunch budgets. Providence Hospitals and Safeway added the larger retail sized wraps to their line ups in May, and more customers are calling.

"Wal-Mart has picked up the wraps, Target has approved it, and we're in negotiations with Sam's Club and Fred Meyer," Galindo said.

The Taco Loco wraps use sockeye salmon purchased from Copper River Seafoods. Galindo said he expects to buy 40,000 pounds of sockeye meat this year, up from 10,000 pounds last year. He said Taco Loco plans to expand its line of wraps to include Alaska pollock.

Dean Hamburg, who also is president of the Alaska School Nutrition Association, said schools too often have to default to the least expensive items, such as the Trout Treasures that are offered on menus in Juneau and other school districts.

"Alaska seafood can be an affordable, more wholesome addition," he said, "and it gets served up with a sense of pride among kids and staff at lunch time."

Ideas wanted for salmon wastes

Each year more than 150 million pounds of salmon parts are tossed out as wastes by Alaska's salmon industry. But there's gold in all that gurry, and money is available for ideas to turn co-products into profits.

"We can start with salmon heads because of the high concentrations of oils," said Capt. Bob Pawlowski, director of the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation. For 30 years the nonprofit AFDF has partnered with industry stakeholders to fund long term advancements.

"There are good gelatins, protein powders or flakes dried at low temperatures, meals and oils that include all the soluble proteins and flavors and aromas that are very appealing to the pet food industry, health supplements, leathers and clothing, bio-fuels - it can all be processed and handled," Pawlowski added. "With spiraling costs all 'round, we must find ways to use this biomass."

The AFDF will fund innovative projects ranging from $15,000 to $75,000.

"We're looking for ideas from our members and from people in the industry who deal with this on a daily basis, and small entrepreneurs. Put on your thinking caps and we'll put out some money," Pawlowski said.

Funding for the program comes from the Southeast Sustainable Salmon Fund. Deadline to submit a proposal is July 18; projects will begin in October. Contact AFDF in Anchorage at 907-276-7315 for more information.

MCA kudos

The Juneau-based Marine Conservation Alliance Foundation has received a national award for its marine debris clean up program. The program has partnered with local communities to remove thousands of tons of nets, plastics and other debris from Alaska coastlines.

"The foundation's work is a model for the nation," said Jim Balsiger, director of NOAA Fisheries.

The MCA will receive the Coastal Habitat Restoration Award this week in Washington, D.C. as part of NOAA's third annual Sustainable Fisheries Leadership Awards Program.