Students in Western Alaska ate better food, including more local salmon, after participating in a fish-to-school program that concluded with an Iron Chef-style cooking competition among the children, University of Alaska Fairbanks researchers found.
The researchers are studying how upgrading Alaska school lunch menus from fish sticks to locally caught salmon could have health, educational and community benefits. Quentin Fong, seafood marketing specialist at Alaska Sea Grant and professor at the UAF School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, oversaw the creation of a guide with information on more than 20 Alaska seafood processors for school food-service directors.
Andrea Bersamin, associate professor at the UAF Center for Alaska Native Health Research, worked with processors to serve local salmon in a school lunchroom once a week. She also developed lessons, including one that has students write about how various types of fish are caught, processed, and delivered.
During the 2013–2014 academic year, one school in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta used Bersamin’s program while another did not. Bersamin and research coordinator Jennifer Nu traveled to the schools three times during the year and asked randomly selected students to describe what they ate during the previous 24 hours. At the end of the test program, Nu helped oversee the Fish to School Iron Chef competition, with students as cooks.
Students in the fish-to-school program ate more traditional food, including locally caught salmon, Bersamin found. Their overall diet quality improved when compared to students in the other school.
“We want to promote the traditional diet. We chose salmon for the program because they are commercially available, but the broader message goes beyond just the salmon,” Bersamin said.
The students’ understanding of food sources also increased.
“It is important for kids to understand that some local fish are caught by family members, processed and eaten,” Bersamin said. “A commercially caught salmon might get flown to Anchorage before being sold to your household. A fish stick, on the other hand, may get processed in Massachusetts, shipped to a distribution center in Texas, and then finally sent up to our Alaska communities.”
Bersamin hopes to adapt and modify the program for statewide application in coming years. Alaska Sea Grant will soon publish Fong’s seafood-purchasing guide. Fong and Bersamin have three years of funding for their work from the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, a U.S. Department of Agriculture program.
For more information on the fish-to-school program, see http://seagrant.uaf.edu/news/2015/11-25-15-fish-to-school-program.php.