Moose on the menu: how Petersburg School District is bringing farm-to-school to Alaska

Food Service Director Carlee Johnson McIntosh and her team have spent years creating partnerships with suppliers in the area to bring fresh produce and animal protein to students.
Students eating in the cafeteria
Fresh produce, seafood and more make appearances on Petersburg's lunch menu. | Photo: Shutterstock

At first glance, Petersburg School District in Alaska is not the type of place you would think would have a farm-to-school program.

Located on Mitkof Island, a 17-mile-long piece of land just off the coast of Canada, one of the few ways fresh produce gets to the district is by boat from a neighboring island. If that wasn’t hard enough, the area’s temperate climate further narrows down what can be grown.

Local ingredients do make an appearance on the menu, however, thanks to the persistence of Food Service Director Carlee Johnson McIntosh and her team.

“It doesn't happen overnight. Nothing happens overnight,” says McIntosh. “I think it's easy to be discouraged, like, ‘Oh, gosh, this didn't work out or there's nobody around me to do this.’ It's really taken a lot of continual push.”

The district’s farm-to-school initiatives got an additional boost this school year thanks to a Healthy Meals Incentive (HMI) grant through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and nonprofit Action for Healthy Kids. The grant program is intended to help small and/or rural school district increase the amount of scratch-cooking and local ingredients on their menu.

Funding from the grant was used to purchase equipment, offer staff training and more, McIntosh says, and the team’s farm-to-school program has continued to grow as a result.

A symbiotic relationship

One of the main ways local produce ends up on the school lunch menu is through the district’s partnership with a local supplier who participates in a farmers market on the island.

McIntosh and the supplier formed an agreement where she purchases whatever produce is leftover at the end of the market.

“That way, whatever they bring to town, they know they're going to sell,” she says. “It benefits them, and it benefits us.”

While the variety of the produce from the supplier is limited (it’s mostly hardy vegetables like broccoli and carrots), the quality is typically much better than what can be found on the mainland.

“Anything that I do get for the school usually comes out of Seattle and it takes about three days to get up here,” says McIntosh. “Everything's just put into a shipping container, maybe it's chilled, but it might not be the best situation, and sometimes, I get stuff that's less than stellar.”

In addition to produce, the district also has incorporated local proteins into the menu as well. Sockeye and Cohoe salmon dot the lunch menu and less common proteins like moose also make an appearance.  

“In the state of Alaska, moose is considered a traditional food so we can offer it a lot easier than some other states,” says McIntosh.

Connecting students to their food

This year, McIntosh started teaching a culinary class at the high school and had the students participate in a student advisory council as part of the curriculum.

The council gives students the opportunity to share feedback on dishes as well as what they would like to see offered on the menu.

“[The students are] not going to sugarcoat anything for me,” says McIntosh. “So, I think that's really helped.”

After the students offer their feedback, McIntosh has them get their hands dirty in the kitchen and help create updated versions of the dishes they thought fell flat. One of the menu items students helped rework this year, for example, was a ramen bowl that they felt needed more flavor and heat.

“We started [adding] things like jalapenos in it and some chipotle, and also different spices,” says McIntosh.

The updated bowl was met with positive reviews from students and is now offered on the high school menu.

The greater student body also has opportunities to better connect with their food. This school year, McIntosh partnered with the Petersburg Indian Association and invited them to come speak to students about the different types of food that are native to the area and how they’re harvested and made into meals.  

“It really kind of brought that full circle as to why it's so important to have some of these things in our school meals because they represent our area,” says McIntosh. “It's part of the heritage of this area.”

McIntosh is looking forward to continuing to find ways to expand the amount of farm-to-school ingredients on the menu and educate students on the importance of eating local.

In addition to receiving a Healthy Meal Incentives grant, the nutrition team also recently received a Project SCALES (Supporting Community Agriculture and Local Education Systems) grant from the USDA and Boise State University. This funding will be used over the next couple of years to further minimize the challenges of bringing farm-to-school ingredients to schools in the state.

“[We’re trying to do] a whole research project on the barriers to get local foods into schools, what schools need from these farmers and what farmers need from schools and try to work on like a comprehensive plan to increase farm to school in Alaska,” says McIntosh.



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