Alaska’s Farm-to-School Program Finding ‘Room for Extension’ Thanks to UAF

AK_f2sIt’s been a few years since we checked in with our friend Kate Idzorek at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension. Back in 2011, we learned about how Idzorek was developing recipes for school cafeterias using Alaska grown-and-milled barley flour. In addition to sharing her recipe for barley hamburger buns, Kate told us that she was working on a chocolate chip cookie recipe, and a breakfast muffin as well.

Fast forward to 2014, when we caught up with Kate’s sister, Helen, at the Farm-to-Cafeteria Conference in Austin, TX. Helen is the FNP Program Coordinator at UAF Cooperative Extension, and she let us know that Kate was about to wrap up the development of a short cookbook of Alaska Farm-to-School recipes, which would include the recipe for those breakfast muffins. Recently Kate emailed us the finished product; in addition to those breakfast muffins, there are recipes for pizza dough, a tasty seafood “chowder” and—of course—salmon! Created with funds provided by the Alaska Department of Natural Resources Division of Agriculture, the recipes were developed with the help of school foodservice professionals, and a full nutritional breakdown and national meal pattern components are supplied for each one. Since it’s National Farm-to-School Month, we decided to check back in with Kate—as well as some other stakeholders in the Alaska Farm-to-School network—to see how farm-to-school is looking in The Last Frontier.

“I coordinate with school nutrition services and farmers to ensure I meet everyone’s needs,” explained Kate during our Skype session. “My main role is recipe development, using Alaska-grown foods that are grown on a large enough scale, and which school nutrition folks are willing to use, and I make sure the non-Alaska-grown ingredients are already on-hand [in the school kitchen] or are easy to source.” In addition to Alaska’s new farm-to-school cookbook, Kate will be testing recipes from Vermont’s New School Cuisine farm-to-school cookbook. As Kate works in the CES kitchens to develop scalable farm-to-school recipes for Alaska’s school cafeterias, she’s hopeful that Cooperative Extension can take a fuller role in Alaska Farm-to-School programming overall. “Our nutrition educators are in the classroom delivering lessons to students, and I think there is an opportunity for extension with farmers as well—sourcing, creating a central food hub, and working to create more of a connection between farmers,” said Kate. Currently Kate plans to assess student acceptability of the new recipes—as well as those from Vermont—with student taste-tests. “I’m finding better avenues for feedback now that the recipes are out there,” said Kate. “And when I can’t get student feedback, I can usually rely on the [school] cooks to know what the kids in their district will like.”

In Alaska, partnering with Cooperative Extension Services (CES) has offered expanded opportunities for farm-to-school programming. In a state with serious infrastructure challenges, CES has been able to provide a bridge between Alaska-grown foods and the students who are eating them. Alaska Farm-to-School Coordinator Johanna Heron believes that the nutrition education component that extension provides is crucial. “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.”

Take Tok, for example. Tok is a small town in the Interior of Alaska—part of the Gateway School District—where students are responding positively to farm-to-school programs that include a district greenhouse, and nutrition education provided through Cooperative Extension via SNAP-Ed nutrition educator Rita Abel. A former home economics teacher, Abel gives her lessons roots—all the better to take hold in young minds. “I’m doing anything from hand-washing demonstrations to MyPlate lessons!” said Rita. “With the greenhouse our goals are two-fold: we want to get the [produce] out to the foodservice sector in each of our schools, for use in meals, and we want to get students in to visit—and they are really excited.” For Abel, it’s about connecting the dots for the students so they can understand the entire process—from the raw vegetable they encounter in the greenhouse, to the cooked one on their plate. It’s also important to connect the food to everyday life, says Abel. “We’re coming full-circle now, and people realize we need these skills,” Rita explained. “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.” Gateway School District Coordinator of Nutrition Dannie Rutledge concurs. “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,” said Rutledge. “Positive exposure is the key to getting kids to open up and try new foods.”

But what about the farmer’s perspective? To learn a little more about that, we turned to Tanana Valley Farmers Market manager and Goosefoot Farm owner Brad St. Pierre. St. Pierre acknowledges that barriers such as infrastructure, processing, and storage need to be addressed, but he sees potential for farmers to expand into the school nutrition market in Alaska. “Processing the food isn’t covered by [farm-to-school] grants, so it’s the smaller districts—that have the time for processing—that are buying my food,” said St. Pierre, who sold about 400 pounds of turnips to Alaska schools last season. “With a viable storage plan, the ability to work together as farmers, and allowing schools to become a piece of the supply chain—with those pieces in place, we can really expand farm-to-school in Alaska.”

When it comes to administering the program, Child Nutrition Program Manager for Alaska’s Department of Education & Early Child Development, Child Nutrition Programs, Jo Dawson is making sure that meals served are in compliance with USDA regulations, as well as providing training, support, resources, and administrative reviews. Dawson sees the partnership with CES as a good fit for Alaska farm-to-school. “The growth is new, but consistent, so I think we’ll see more availability of foods … going forward,” said Dawson. “Working with CES, developing and adapting recipes for schools that highlight Alaska grown foods—we are building on the success that started in Dillingham, where fresh fish came in to [classrooms] first.”

Ultimately, Extension services serve as the bridge school districts need between the locally-grown foods they serve, and a sustainable program that makes a positive impact on Alaska’s students. CES FNP Coordinator Helen Idzorek said it best: “. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for everyone involved in farm-to-school here in Alaska—farmers, districts, educators, and students can all benefit from the programs Extension has to offer. Whether you need a nutrition educator, or help developing recipes, we hope to see more districts utilize the Extension services in their area for implementing and expanding farm-to-school efforts.”

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