Dillingham really got the ball rolling this summer when chief lunch lady Patty Luckhurst saw farmed tilapia and trout as federal commodity selections for school lunches. This in the land of the world's largest red salmon run!
Luckhurst spearheaded a program to put Bristol Bay sockeye salmon on the kids' lunch trays. She approached local fishermen who were delighted to donate fish, and Peter Pan Seafoods offered to process it for free.
"Within three days I had 4,000 pounds of beautiful red fillets all individually vacuum sealed in the school freezer. They're beautiful," Luckhurst said, adding that the salmon will be served in portions along with wild rice and broccoli, as well as salmon tacos, salad and patties. "I might even have kids bring in their favorite salmon recipes from home," she said.
Luckhurst gives the federal government credit for trying to do a good job with its commodity food offerings, and it can be tough for schools to afford items that comply with strict nutritional guidelines.
"But I don't like all the processed stuff. I don't like the kids to be thrilled to see pizza and corn dogs and chicken nuggets and hot dogs and canned chili. They need to eat real food," she said.
Many smaller schools, like Dillingham, still make spaghetti sauce from scratch, do their own baking, and serve halibut chowder, she said, adding: "Bigger schools don't have the time or labor to do that."
Luckhurst, a 19 year veteran of school kitchens, agrees that high shipping costs to get fresh produce or proteins to remote regions can be prohibitive. That's why it makes sense to purchase more foods locally.
"Even if the fish wasn't donated I believe the cost would be appropriate for us to buy it from here. And it behooves us to support our local fishermen all over the state. With all the reports about how healthy fish is and that we should all be eating more - with it right here there is no sense in bringing in processed stuff anymore," Luckhurst said.
Kodiak kids will be enjoying locally produced pink salmon in sandwiches and hot meals during the school year
"We did trials last May and it went over really well. So the school district has given us a purchase order for the upcoming school year," said Chris Sannito who produces the lightly smoked pink salmon product under his Wildsource label.
Fish tacos made from Alaska pollock have also received high marks from school kids in three Lower 48 districts.
"The biggest challenge is educating school food buyers that there is a big difference in fish quality," said Pat Shanahan, project director for the Genuine Alaska Pollock Producers marketing group.
GAPP is taking its message directly to school districts and national conferences.
"What we've learned is that there is a lack of information about seafood and how to buy it," Shanahan said. GAPP has created a curriculum for school district buyers that teaches them how to buy high quality products, and particularly products from Alaska," Shanahan.
"Our competing products are Alaska pollock that's caught in Russian waters, frozen on the boat and shipped to China (primarily) where it's thawed, cut up and frozen again into blocks. There are inherent quality differences in taste and texture," Shanahan explained.
Buying processed seafood products adds even more confusion. "If a product is changed substantially, like breaded, it becomes a 'Product of the U.S.' no matter where the raw material comes from," she added.
The pollock producers have created a program that allows school buyers to specify they want products bearing the GAPP logo.
"That ensures the fish is harvested and processed in Alaska, and it is what the kids tasted in their fish tacos," Shanahan said. "And schools can afford this product."
Shanahan said the response to getting more good seafood onto school lunch menus has been very positive and it is well worth the effort.
"Be creative in the school kitchen," said Dillingham's Patty Luckhurst. "Don't be afraid to try new things. And ask the kids. Sometimes what we're feeding them in school might be the most nutritious meal they have all day."
Give, get a tax break
Anyone who pays Alaska taxes can get a big tax break by donating to the state university.
"I think it's one of the best kept secrets in Alaska," said Denis Wiesenburg, dean of the School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences at the University of Alaska/Fairbanks.
"The Educational Tax Credit allows companies that pay taxes to the state of Alaska to give gifts to the university and in doing so, they can reduce their state taxes," he explained.
Wiesenburg pointed out that it's not a tax deduction, but a credit - and it applies to many types of Alaska taxes.
"Income tax, fisheries business or landing tax - they can get a tax credit by donating money to the university. That way they help support the university by reducing their tax burden at the same time," he said.
Another plus - donors can decide how the money will be spent.
"Companies that donate can have that money go for a specific purpose - whether it's a scholarship, funding for a specific research program, providing fellowships for graduate students or general unspecified support," he said.
The credit is 50 percent of the first $100,000 of contributions and 100 percent of the next $100,000 of contributions. Any person or company that pays taxes to the state can take advantage of the Educational Tax Credit.