Fairbanks, Alaska—The “fish to school” program aims to help schools in Alaska upgrade lunch menus from fish sticks to locally caught salmon. The program promises to both support Alaska fishermen and improve nutrition.
What we eat affects our bodies, community economics and the environment. Many Alaska communities also have a strong cultural connection to the food they eat. But these considerations are not written on food labels, which can make it challenging to evaluate the best meal options.
With three years of funding from the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative through the US Department of Agriculture, University of Alaska Fairbanks researchers are studying how increased use of local salmon in Alaska schools could have a range of health, educational and community benefits. They created the fish to school program, which includes a set of yearlong activities containing lesson plans, community events and weekly salmon lunches for schools, and a seafood purchasing guide for food service directors. After completing a successful trial run of the program in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, the researchers hope to expand it for statewide use.
During the school year, students may eat up to ten meals per week at school. Increasing the quantity of local food served could offer nutritional benefits for Alaska students throughout the school year, especially during the winter months when the quality of food is more likely to decline in subsistence-dependent communities.
Consumers in Alaska purchase only about 1 percent of commercially caught seafood. Creating a connection between Alaska fish processors and local schools could have the additional benefit of keeping more Alaska-caught seafood in the state.
Andrea Bersamin, associate professor at the UAF Center for Alaska Native Health Research through the Institute of Arctic Biology, developed the program for schools to increase their use of Alaska-caught salmon.
The program has a classroom component and a dietary component. Bersamin worked with Alaska seafood processors to serve locally caught salmon in a school lunchroom once a week. She explains that salmon were chosen because they are culturally important, and they are caught by both commercial and subsistence fishermen. “We want to promote the traditional diet. We chose salmon for the program because they are commercially available, but the broader message goes beyond just the salmon,” Bersamin said.
Bersamin also developed lesson plans on how food choice influences health, community economics and the environment. One lesson has students write stories about food supply chains for subsistence fish, commercial fish and processed fish.
“It is important for kids to understand that some local fish are caught by family members, processed, and eaten,” Bersamin said. “A commercially caught salmon might get flown to Anchorage before being sold to your household. A fish stick, on the other hand, may get processed in Massachusetts, shipped to a distribution center in Texas, and then finally sent up to our Alaska communities.”
Bersamin and research coordinator Jennifer Nu studied two schools in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta during the 2013–2014 school year. The program was implemented in one school, and the other school served as a control. To evaluate the effect of the program on dietary intake, the researchers traveled to the two schools three times during the year and conducted “24 hour recalls” on randomly selected students at each school. The recalls give an in-depth diet history for the previous 24 hours.
Bersamin found that the program increased traditional food intake, use of locally caught salmon, diet quality, and awareness and understanding of food choice linkages to the community. Based on the success of the first stages of the school program, Bersamin hopes to adapt and modify it for statewide application in the coming years.
Quentin Fong, seafood marketing specialist at Alaska Sea Grant and professor at the UAF School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, has focused on making it easier for schools to order Alaska-caught seafood. “Most food processors think that schools can’t afford their seafood,” Fong said. His initial goal was to determine when and how purchasing seafood could be possible for Alaska schools, especially in rural towns.
About a year and a half into the project, the US Department of Agriculture funded the Farm to School program, which subsidized locally caught food, including seafood, for schools all over the United States. This subsidy makes it much easier and more desirable for schools to purchase local fish.
Fong and Bersamin quickly adjusted the scope of the fish to school project. During the process of rethinking and retooling, they learned that food service directors who make decisions about the food that goes into school lunches typically have a high turnover rate, and many of them come from outside Alaska.
“Because the turnover is so high, a lot of folks, even if they know of the Farm to School program, don’t fully understand the importance of eating local fish,” Fong said. As a result, the food service directors might not instinctively choose Alaska fish or locally sourced foods as they develop food plans for schools.
Fong decided to create a seafood-purchasing guide for food service directors that would explain how to order seafood, when different kinds of seafood are available throughout the year, and questions to ask seafood processors when ordering.
Fong sent a survey out to seafood processors all over Alaska to collect information about the products that they sell, as well as how the products are cut, processed and packaged. Twenty three seafood processors responded to the survey, and the information about their businesses is included in the guide, soon to be published by Alaska Sea Grant. Fong hopes the guide will inspire other seafood processors to participate in future editions.
- Andrea Bersamin, Associate Professor, UAF Center for Alaska Native Health, 907-474-6129, firstname.lastname@example.org
- Quentin Fong, Seafood Marketing Specialist, Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program, 907-486-1516, email@example.com