Story last updated at 10/9/2013 - 1:17 pm
"Eat local" is a relative term for Southeast Alaskans. Commercial produce grown in the state comes mainly from the Mat-Su Valley some 800 miles away. Our food arrives by truck, barge, and even air, and getting it here from the Lower 48 is expensive and the travel takes its toll on fresh produce. Around town, local ingredients are prized in restaurants and shops: rhubarb ice cream at Coppa, home grown sourdough bread at Wild Oven, or fresh fish at the Rookery. School children don't necessarily have the opportunity or the means to eat like local foodies, but the Juneau School District is working to bring the same kinds of ingredients into school meals.
Through a program created by the Alaska Department of Commerce, Community, and Economic Development called Nutritional Alaskan Foods for Schools, children in Juneau are able to eat local and learn the value of food produced in their home state.
"I got a real carrot!" That's one of the reactions Adrienne Schwartz has overheard as children are served raw carrots grown in Alaska. Schwartz is the food service supervisor for the Juneau School District, and she said student responses to the second year of the Nutritional Alaskan Foods for Schools program has been overwhelmingly positive.
"The students really notice the vegetables," Schwartz said. "We serve carrots every day - the mini carrots - we don't typically serve sugar snap peas except when we can get them from Merryweather Farm, so the kids really notice the fresh produce when we bring it in."
According to the Nutritional Alaskan Foods for Schools program, in the 2012-2013 school year, which was the first year of the program, school districts across the state purchased more than 100,000 pounds of Alaskan seafood, nearly 60,000 pounds of livestock and poultry, 36,000 pounds of vegetables, and also berries, honey, jam and eggs all produced by Alaskan growers and producers. The department of commerce awarded 1.4 million dollars to schools across the state in grants to fund the program.
"We were an early adopter," Schwartz said.
When they first began to make use of the grant, they didn't realize its full scope and they used the money to buy meals for breakfasts, lunches and snacks for after school programs. Towards the end of the year, they were able to use the money to fund special snacks on testing days and to buy ingredients for culinary arts programs.
"Last year, it was interesting," Schwartz said. "Because we visited a high school and talked to some students. Some were excited while others were like, 'Ew. I don't want that.' I think that as it becomes more of the normal menu that students are used to, they have become more receptive. This year, we've seen much more participation from students."
While fish is what stands out as the most obvious local ingredient in Juneau School District Menus, it's by far not the only one. Over the last year, Nana Management, who runs the food service program for the school district has purchased and used barley cereal from the Alaska Flour Company in Delta Junction; vegetables, like cabbage, potatoes and carrots from the Mat-Su Valley; sugar snap peas from Merryweather Farms in Gustavus; and fireweed honey from Alaska Wild Berry products.
The program isn't just about feeding the students - it also involves educating them about what they are eating. The school district provides flyers and posters and the staff serving the meals talk to the students about where their food came from. The district also began a Facebook page for parents to get information about their students' meal program.
"We are very excited to have the ability to offer nutritional Alaskan foods as part of our menu on a regular basis," Schwartz said. "We think it's a healthy and nutritional option for our students, and a way to support our local economy as well."
Schwartz said they're always on the lookout for new ingredients. They must purchase from an approved list provided by the state department of commerce.
"We're looking for other types of produce - vegetables are a bit limited in terms of quantity and the times of year that they are available, so that is a challenge," Schwartz said. "We are also looking into stew meat and hamburger options and wild game."
The program is grant-funded, but Schwartz hopes that even if the grant money ends someday that the school district will continue its commitment to local foods.
"We are happy to be starting relationships with a lot of these fish processors and growers," Schwartz said. "The hope is that we can work together and somehow still be able to continue purchasing the products."
To find out more about the Juneau School District's Food Service Program:
www.schoolmealapp.com (apply for school meal benefits online)
www.juneauschools.org (school menus located in 2013-2014 orange box)
To find out more about the Nutritional Alaskan Foods for Schools program: http://commerce.alaska.gov/dnn/dcra/GrantsSection/NutritionalAlaskanFoodsinSchools.aspx