In the small coastal town of Sitka, Alaska, nestled on the west coast of Baranof Island in the heart of the Tongass – the nation’s largest National Forest, students eat local food for lunch. The Sitka Conservation Society incorporates all the key elements that make an excellent farm to school program: health, sustainability and community, and then apply those themes to fish.
The students eat fish at school, are taught stream to plate curriculum and develop an appreciation for their natural environment. Simultaneously, they connect with community-based fishermen. Recently, fishermen were celebrated during a special fish lunch at two local schools. Since the event coincided with St. Valentine’s Day, fishermen even received Valentine’s Day cards from the students.
During this “We Love Our Fishermen Lunch,” I asked Grace, a 3rd grader at Keet Gooshi Heen Elementary School why she chose the cheesy rockfish over the hot dog. Without any prompting, she said, “It’s a lot more healthy and it tastes amazing.” Grace was not alone in her rave review. Fifth grader, Levi, said he opted for the rockfish because, “My Dad’s a fishermen, it’s local and I don’t like the other kind of school foods.”
Meanwhile, over at Pacific High School, not only are the students eating fish for lunch, but they are also involved in cooking up the fish. Students rotate the responsibility of preparing lunch for the rest of the small alternative school as part of their food handler’s license job training. “It’s good. Usually, I don’t eat fish, but this is really good,” commented one of the student chefs. She continued to say it differed from other lunches because it seemed healthier.
Every week there is another element to the program. Throughout February, March and April, the middle school students will have a slew of fish themed classes covering Fishing Methods, Conservation & Sustainability, Traditional Native Cultural Values, Processing & Dissection, Cooking & Nutrition, and finally a tour of two local fish processing plants: the Seafood Producer’s Cooperative and Sitka Sound Seafood.
Through the Fish to School program, young people develop an increased awareness of the importance of the Tongass, since it is critical habitat for salmon and trout populations. With fish on dinner plates and cafeteria trays, the community, as a whole, will ensure the resources they depend on are sustainably managed. Additionally, the U.S. Department of Agriculture must focus on a more sustainable school lunch system by using local foods.
In this way, Sitka Conservation Society works to build a socially, economically and environmentally sustainable community that lives within the splendor and beauty of the Tongass. For more information, visit their website at www.sitkawild.org.