Story last updated at 12/16/2009 - 11:52 am
More of America's school kids will be eating fish for lunch now that top quality pollock has been added to the government's Commodity Processing Program. Under the program, states and recipient agencies can contract with commercial food processors to convert raw bulk USDA commodities into more convenient, ready-to-use products, such as fish sticks, nuggets and portions.
"States have certain entitlement dollars based on the number of free and reduced lunches they serve, and those entitlement dollars can be used to purchase commodity products," explained Pat Shanahan, program director for the Genuine Alaska Pollock Producers trade group. "The state's orders are all combined into one purchase by the USDA, so it allows schools to get the cost benefits of a large purchase."
In the case of pollock, GAPP worked hard to make sure the USDA included the term "once frozen" in its purchase specifications, which pretty much guarantees that the fish will come from Alaska. In contrast, most of the pollock caught by Russian fishing fleets is frozen and shipped to China, where it is thawed again and refrozen into blocks for reprocessing.
"Anything thawed and frozen twice loses quality," Shanahan said. "You're going to have moisture loss, flavor loss, mushier texture, and if the product has fat, you'll have oxidation. So you need more to cover it up."
Shanahan said five years ago, schools didn't know there was a difference, but more are now specifying once frozen Alaska pollock.
"One of the things that is very exciting about this particular commodity purchase is that for many schools it might be a first time they have a product of this quality that they are offering to students," Shanahan said. "There are many districts in the U.S. that never serve fish at all. So we're hoping they will see the difference and really understand that using a good quality product is the key to student acceptance of seafood."
The GAPP has been working with national school food programs for several years to create kid friendly pollock products for school lunch trays.
"I think our industry has been a little behind in updating its recipes for school lunches. Many schools when we started were still serving fish sticks and fish sandwiches as their only options, and now we've got a whole range of choices along the lines of what you'd find in a normal restaurant," Shanahan said.
The Baja salad, for example, is made with spicy cornmeal crusted pollock sticks and served in a taco shell bowl. That's the favorite in Fairbanks schools, and Kenai kids called the fish choices "the best school lunches ever," according to Dean Hamburg, director of Student Nutrition Services for the Kenai Peninsula school district. Alaska pollock items also are on menus in Houston and Seattle school districts, and now that pollock is included in the USDA's commodity list, more regions will be able to turn kids into fish eaters.
All winter in classrooms across Alaska, kids are caring for tiny salmon that they will release to the wild in the spring. Most are using the "Alaska Wild Salmon" guide as their instruction manual, which for more than 20 years has been distributed free to schools, libraries and other outlets in Alaska and beyond.
"It's been very useful for just about anyone who wants to know about Alaska salmon," said Nancy Long, an information officer for the Dept. of Fish and Game and editor of the salmon guide. "This publication is extremely popular and we get orders throughout the U.S., especially from west coast teachers. It's really helpful for new teachers to Alaska who want to learn about the culture and importance of salmon."
Long said working on the salmon guide and other creative materials about Alaska's fish and wildlife is the most fun part of her job. For fisheries biologist Jay Baumer of Anchorage, it's driving the Salmon Van - an aquatic classroom that travels by road and ferry all over Alaska.
"It's all the hands on things that really get the kids excited," Baumer said. "They actually get to meet and work with a biologist, get fish from their own region, cut them open and go through all the anatomy. They love it!"
Baumer believes Alaska's wild salmon and wildlife education programs can help set kids on a good career path.
"They never thought of becoming a biologist and this enters into their world - they discover something new, hands on, fun - and it allows them to apply science," he said. "We are really trying to get more local residents involved in what's going on in their fisheries and this is a great beginning for them."
Find teaching tools about Alaska's fish and wildlife for all ages on the web at the Alaska department of commercial fisheries home page under Teacher Resources.
Laine Welch has been covering news of Alaska's seafood industry since 1988. Her weekly Fish Factor column appears in a dozen newspapers and web outlets. Her daily Fish Radio programs air on 27 stations around Alaska. Welch lives in Kodiak.