AK: Wild salmon on the school lunch menu in Sitka

Lorelai and Arianna are two of the students enjoying the wild salon school lunches (Photo: Emily Russell, KCAW).

KCAW’s Emily Russell in Sitka reports on how wild salmon makes its way out of a fisherman’s net and onto a student’s plate.

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It’s a little after eleven in the morning at Keet Gooshi Heen Elementary School in Sitka. The cafeteria is quiet. That is, until the doors open and student flood in.

Once she’s got her food, I sit down with a second grader named Lorelai.

She’s sitting next to her friend who’s pecking at a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Lorelai’s lunch looks a little different, though.

“Salmon, chocolate milk, and vegetables,” Lorelai said.

That’s right, salmon.

Lexi Hackett has been with the Fish to Schools lunch program from the start. She says the idea came out of Sitka’s annual health summit back in 2009.

“The fish lunch is served every Wednesday in all the schools in the district, as well as Mt. Edgecumbe [High School],” Hackett said. “And the priority that was chosen was getting locally caught fish in the school lunch programs in Sitka.”

Some of the salmon preparers at the schools (Photo: Emily Russell, KCAW)

Hackett grew up in a fishing family in Sitka. She runs her own boat with her husband now and she’s also on track to become a registered dietitian. She just finished her Master’s in Nutrition.

“Fatty fish, like salmon, black cod– two local favorites– are really high in omega-3 fatty acids, which are anti-inflammatory,” Hackett said.

Hackett said those omega-3 fatty acids also encourage brain development, especially in kids and young adults.

“That’s definitely relevant to serving fish in our schools,” Hackett said.

David Glazier is a retired music teacher turned commercial fisherman. He’s been donating to the program since the beginning.

“It’s well received by the kids. They love fish and they know it’s good for them,” Glazier said. “I feel like I owe the schools a lot for my career.”

Glazier is referring to the retirement package he got from Sitka School District. But Younes Foroozin said, really, it’s just the right thing to do.

“Us fishermen are good hearted people,” Foroozin said.

Levi, Cameron and Dane are three more of the students. (Photo: Emily Russell, KCAW – Sitka)

This is Foroozin’s second year donating to Fish to Schools. Sitka Conservation Society, a partner in the program, organizes the annual coho drive every August. That makes it easy for local fishermen to help out.

“I was just asked during the off-load if I would [donate],” Foroozin said. “It’s a good thing to do.”

More than 30 fishermen donated to the program this year, just enough to cover about a quarter of the 2,000 pounds of salmon needed to make it a weekly lunch.

The rest is purchased by the Sitka School District through funding from a state grant aimed at getting locally grown foods into schools called the Nutritional Alaskan Foods in Schools Program.

Cassee Olin is business manager for the Sitka School District.

“I don’t know how to explain it, but kids in Sitka like fish,” Olin said. “I wear many hats within the district.”

One of those is the food services director hat. With that on, Olin oversees the weekly logistics of Fish to Schools. It all starts the day before. The fish are brought up from the cold storage to thaw out overnight at the high school.

That’s also where the processing and portioning happens.

“Chef Jo, the head chef up at the high school, and her helper– they pull all the pin bones out of all of [the fish],” Olin said. “That takes a good couple of hours to do.”

On the day of, the fish are seasoned, cooked, loaded into warm boxes, and sent out to the other schools.

“All that happens between breakfast, which usually ends 8:30 or 9:00 a.m., and , like here at Keet [Gooshi Heen Elementary School], they’re serving lunch right now at 11:20 a.m,” Olin said.

Thank you notes from the students (Photo: Emily Russell, KCAW)

About half the kids in the cafeteria have a salmon filet on their trays today.

“No one that’s not vegetarian does not like fish that I know,” Seren, a fifth grader, said.

“Are you saying everybody likes fish?” I asked.

“That I know, that’s not vegetarian,” Seren said.

Seren took a second to think of her favorite foods of all time.

“Salmon is second on my list of favorite foods,” Seren said.

That is, of course behind caramel chocolates, Seren told me. When I ask her what it would be like if there was no Fish to Schools lunch program, her eyes get really wide.

“The Zombie apocalypse,” Seren said. “I’m kidding, but there would be an apocalypse kind of thing.”

There’s enough grant money to fund the program through next year. After that, though, it’s up to the district’s food service budget and the donation drive to prevent the Alaskan-style apocalypse of an empty freezer.

Emily Russell is the voice of Alaska morning news as Alaska Public Media’s Morning News Host and Producer.

Originally from the Adirondacks in upstate New York, Emily moved to Alaska in 2012. She skied her way through three winters in Fairbanks, earning her Master’s degree in Northern Studies from UAF.

Emily’s career in radio started in Nome in 2015, reporting for KNOM on everything from subsistence whale harvests to housing shortages in Native villages. She then worked for KCAW in Sitka, finally seeing what all the fuss with Southeast, Alaska was all about.

Back on the road system, Emily is looking forward to driving her Subaru around the region to hike, hunt, fish and pick as many berries as possible. When she’s not talking into the mic in the morning, Emily can be found reporting from the peaks above Anchorage to the rivers around Southcentral.

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