As schools across the country celebrate National Farm-to-School Month, Alaska’s students are also enjoying the fruits (and veggies!) of a growing farm-to-school movement. Schools from Dillingham to Tok are serving up fresh, local Alaska ingredients such as halibut, salmon, and barley, to name just a few. Farm-to-school programming has proven to be an excellent vehicle for effective partnerships statewide, and particularly for UAF Cooperative Extension. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for everyone involved in farm-to-school here in Alaska,” said Helen Idzorek, FNP Program Coordinator at UAF Cooperative Extension. “In Tok, SNAP-Ed nutrition educator Rita Abel is delivering nutrition education to kids from surrounding villages, while Dannie Rutledge is buying locally for the Gateway District, and using CES recipes in the cafeteria. Here at CES, Kate Idzorek is developing recipes, and recently published an Alaska Farm-to-School recipes cookbook, which is available online.”
Alaska Farm-to-School coordinator Johanna Herron sees only room for growth when it comes to bringing local Alaska foods to school cafeterias around the state. “It’s a statewide program with a lot going on at the local level,” said Herron. “Partnering with the University, and Cooperative Extension, allowed us to do recipe development and pilot programming.” Citing a lack of manpower at the state level as a barrier, Herron sees Alaska Farm-to-School’s partnership with Extension as an opportunity to “fill the gaps” when resources fall short. “It’s a good, multi-purpose leveraging of our cooperation,” explained Herron. “Extension has educators who provide lessons that students can use to connect them to life outside of school. CES complements our efforts with preservation techniques, nutrition education, and other classes, and that education is a huge component for success.”
In Tok, SNAP-Ed nutrition educator Rita Abel brings that practical, lesson-based approach to her students, whether they are visiting the district’s greenhouse or learning the basics of how a plant grows. With a background in teaching home economics, Abel sees nutrition education as the critical component in making farm-to-school programming a sustainable lesson for her students. “We need these skills, and my lessons tie in to the lessons students are receiving in other classes. Math, science, health—all of those things are involved in nutrition. Cooperative Extension has the opportunity to bring in that component; to tie-in the trip to the greenhouse, and the first time they taste a vegetable, to their classes and their everyday lives.”
Speaking of tasting the vegetables, when it comes to eating the food, how are Alaska students responding to locally-sourced fare? They love it, says Dannie Rutledge, Coordinator of Nutrition for Alaska Gateway School District, and that’s due—at least in part—to Rita’s efforts as nutrition educator. “When Rita can make that connection for them, between the raw and the cooked product, between the greenhouse and the tray, that engagement is so important,” explained Rutledge. “That positive exposure is key to getting kids to open up and try new foods.” Translating Alaskan ingredients into recipes that are scalable for school nutrition is one job assigned to CES Food Research Technician Kate Idzorek, whose Farm-to-School cookbook was published earlier this summer. Idzorek’s goal is to develop a dish students will like, using ingredients the district has on-hand, and which can be easily scaled for any Alaska district—from Anchorage to the smallest village. “I develop recipes according to specific requests, and I like to get feedback; I did consumer testing in Tok earlier this summer, and would like to do more,” explained Idzorek, whose recipes feature everything from halibut to kale to cauliflower.
The F2S program also provides an opening for Alaska farmers who envision increasing production—a farm-to-school partnership with a local school or district could provide the expanded market necessary for a farmer to take that leap of faith. According to Tanana Valley Farmers Market manager and owner of Goosefoot Farm Brad St. Pierre, schools could be an excellent opportunity for farmers, once processing, storage, and infrastructure challenges are addressed. “Processing the food isn’t covered by [farm-to-school] grants, so it’s smaller districts that have the time to do the processing that are buying my food,” said St. Pierre. “Fairbanks and Anchorage serve multiple thousands of children daily, and they aren’t buying from local farms because we don’t have the infrastructure to process the vegetables the way they want.” Addressing these barriers, says St. Pierre, is a step toward allowing schools to become a viable link in the supply chain, which in turn would allow for a greater expansion of Alaska-grown foods in cafeterias of all sizes, statewide.
Jo Dawson, Child Nutrition Manager for the Alaska Department of Education & Early Development Child Nutrition Program has watched as Alaska Farm-to-School grew from a fisheries-to-schools project in Dillingham into the extensive network that exists today. Pointing to the recent acquisition of a restaurant by the Southeast Island School District, Dawson marveled at the progress the program has experienced in just four years. “It’s been amazing to watch the growth of F2S in Alaska,” said Dawson. “We started with little pockets, and we’re seeing interest grow across the state. The [Thorne Bay] school bought a restaurant, and they’ll be serving locally-grown foods, but that’s not all—the students will be involved in the administration at every level.”
As Alaska’s farm-to-school program continues to flourish, UAF Cooperative Extension is emerging as a considerable resource for farmers, school nutrition professionals, nutrition educators, and other stakeholder’s in Alaska’s agricultural community. Connecting Alaska’s students with local and traditional foods, and deepening the meaning of “Alaska Grown,” is a mission we are proud to support.