Local foods shake up the menu at Thunder Mountain High School

lunch options
Students can chose from a variety of entrees including pizze, cheeseburgers and halibut. (Heather Bryant/KTOO)

Salmon and halibut on a school lunch menu – it’s been happening in Juneau as the school district looks for healthier and more local foods for kids. Juneau schools in August received a state grant to help fund Alaska Grown lunches. The school district plans to expand the program, but for now students, staff and suppliers are still getting used to the new meals.

Students flood the hallways as lunch starts at Thunder Mountain High School. They congregate at the lunch line, speeding through so they can sit and socialize. Most choose pizza, or a cheeseburger, but 18-year-old Alora Pilgrim picks up halibut with broccoli and red potatoes.

[quote]“I usually get a sandwich or a salad, or if there’s something that looks especially yummy like the halibut I’ll get that.” Pilgrim said. “It’s really good, it seems like it’s more like actual ‘real food’ than maybe some of the other things they serve.” [/quote]

Pilgrim plans to major in biology after high school. When she learned the halibut and potatoes come from Alaska, she said she likes eating a lunch that’s better for the environment.

[quote]”I like eating food that’s local and sustainable.” Pilgrim said. “I think it’s really good because it does help our economy and it’s nice because other things that we do have to fly in are maybe not so fresh, like fruits and vegetables.” [/quote]
Greg Regester, the general manager for NANA management services, prepares the halibut. (Heather Bryant/KTOO)

The day’s halibut came from Taku Smokeries in Juneau, and Matanuska-Susitna Valley potatoes came from Anchorage-based Charlie’s Produce.

Earlier in the year, the Juneau school district offered sockeye salmon from Taku and a coleslaw mix from Mat-Su. It also shipped in vegetables from Merry Weather Farms in Gustavus.

“We literally purchased all her carrots and sugar snap peas.” says Adrianne Schwartz, the food services supervisor for the Juneau School District. She learned this year that Juneau schools were eligible for an $85,000 one-time state grant that would pay for local foods in school lunches.

[quote] “Our main resource in our state I believe has a lot to do with fishing and any way that we can help maintain that or promote, I think, is really good and why not be purchasing foods that are grown right here in our state rather than ordering from elsewhere if we can?” Schwartz says. [/quote]

Schwartz says parents and staff praise the new options, and the district plans to survey students. The menu notes when a food’s from Alaska, and kitchen employees provide more details when students ask about the unfamiliar foods.

Regester says that no matter what is on the menu, pizza is still the most popular item by far. (Heather Bryant/KTOO)

18-year-old Katherine Wray sits without a lunch at a table with other students. She has not tried the Alaska fish when it’s available.

“That sounds gross,” Wray said.

Schwartz says meals are $3.25 for a combination of an entrée, items from the salad bar and milk. Students can choose between a few entrées, but other drinks, or additional entrées, cost extra.

Schwartz says school lunches are in flux nationwide. Posters hang on the walls of the cafeteria urging students to remember the healthy food plate, instead of the familiar food pyramid. The plate is half fruits and vegetables, half grains and proteins, and a glass of milk The local food grant is one facet of a changing lunch program.

[quote]“Sometimes people just aren’t able to get out and hunt and fish or it’s too expensive.” Schwartz says. “And so, you know, I just feel like it’s a very nutritious offering that we can provide to our students and it also exposes them to our local foods and would encourage them to try to eat that type of food outside of school.” [/quote]

The grant is available to other school districts. This is not the first time Southeast schools have provided local food, but the funding allows for a more comprehensive effort to provide it on an ongoing basis. A USDA program funded Juneau school district meals from Taco Loco and Trident Seafoods. Schwartz says the Sitka school district pushed for local options even before funding was available.

The last couple of years they started a program that they were able to do because they were receiving fish donations from the community and then NANA Management Services was paying a processing fee, and so it made it so it was affordable for them to provide fish on the menu,” Schwartz says.

It’s unclear if grant funding will be available next year, but Schwartz says Juneau students periodically will be able to get local, healthy foods.

Greg Regester is the general manager for NANA management services, the food contractor for the Juneau School District. The Thunder Mountain High School kitchen provides ready-to-cook meals for eight other schools in the district. They sell about 1,500 meals a week. Regester says kitchen staff prepared 150 pounds of halibut for lunch on December 7. He’s still analyzing how much more it costs to ship potatoes in from the Mat-Su.

“Cost-wise it looks like it is a bit more expensive to have purchased these items.” Regester says. “But that’s not to say that we still wouldn’t use them, because they are fresher and closer to home.”

In the future, Schwartz plans to offer processed game in addition to more fish and vegetables.

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