Budget cuts take Alaska-grown lunches off the menu

Photo/Courtesy/Tim Meyers

July 1 was a dreaded day across much of Alaska. It marked the start of the 2016 state fiscal year and the harsh realities of the state’s new financial future were about to take hold.

Alaska’s youngsters will taste the impact of state budget cuts at the lunch table when the go back to school in fall.

The Nutritional Alaskan Foods in Schools program was cut from this year’s capital budget. Started in 2013 under former Gov. Sean Parnell’s administration, the $3 million grant program provided reimbursable funding for school districts to purchase foods grown, raised and caught in Alaska.

District leaders across Alaska that spoke with the Journal understood the need to cut state grants, theirs included, but that didn’t lessen the disappointment.

Petersburg School District Superintendent Erica Kludt-Painter summed up the sentiment succinctly: “It’s kind of a bummer.”

Bristol Bay Borough School District Kitchen Manager Tanya Dube said the program introduced her to the wide array of crops and livestock available in the state. It also helped her keep up with changes in national nutritional standards that require grains served in schools to be at least 51 percent whole grain.

“Now, all the breads and pizzas I make from scratch contain Alaska barley. Starting next year that won’t be the case,” Dube said.

The barley came from a farm near Delta.

The Bristol Bay district’s annual food service budget is about $70,000, according to Dube. It got a $27,000 boost from Nutritional Alaskan Foods in Schools in fiscal year 2015.

“That’s a huge jump in the funds that I have available to feed my students,” she said.

Dube purchased vegetables from Meyers Farm in Bethel and salmon from local docks.

“Obviously, as you know, Bristol Bay has the best salmon in the world,” she noted.

And the students took notice. Dube said they began shunning produce from Outside in favor of more flavorful local crops.

More staff and teachers in Petersburg have been staying at school and buying lunch since the program took off, too, Kludt-Painter said, in another testament to the difference in the quality of the products.

In its last year, 54 school districts across the state took advantage of the Alaska foods program, which was managed by the Commerce Department’s Division of Community and Regional Affairs.

Grant administrator Debi Kruse said the program was a huge success while it lasted. Anecdotes similar to Dube’s about students preferring and asking for homegrown foods are plentiful, Kruse said, and some farms had to grow to meet demand.

“In the beginning I was really excited about the educational aspect of getting nutritional food, healthy Alaska food into our kids stomachs,” she said. “What’s more exciting to me now is from the commerce side of things. These producers have started expanding what they’re raising.”

Nutritional Alaskan Foods in Schools got meats and produce moving from places outside of the state’s traditional agriculture districts near Delta and the Matanuska Valley.

Kruse said carrots were going all the way from Gustavus to Kotzebue.

“You hear these stories about kids saying, ‘This is what a fresh carrot tastes like,’” she said. “Those are the success stories to me.”

Down the road the students are also more likely to purchase local products when they become consumers after getting a taste of what Alaska has to offer, Kruse noted.

Tim Meyers, owner of the Bethel farm, sent his cool weather crops to Cordova, King Cove, Sand Point and to Dube in Bristol Bay.

“What a way for the state to get ag going — to give it to the schools,” Meyers said. “It’s a real good market to motivate me to do more than I have been.”

Rutabagas, of all things, were a big hit with Cordova’s kids, he said.

Meyers sent about 5,000 pounds of produce to schools across the state last year, he said. This year he hopes to up his total output from 45,000 pounds to more than 65,000 pounds of veggies and greens.

Another year or two of the program would have allowed him to establish firmer relationships with the schools and merge expansion and efficiencies in his operation, he said.

Kruse said she thought the program needed another three years to strengthen the bonds between districts and farmers, as well as help grow the overall economy of scale of the local food buys.

Initial worries about farmers and distributors inflating prices when grant money was available were ultimately unfounded, according to Kruse. However, local foods from small operations cost more nearly everywhere, and the realities of Alaska just add to those costs.

“There is no doubt that the cost of raising beef up here and slaughtering it and doing all of those things is going to cost a bit more than getting something that was slaughtered three months ago, frozen and sent up here, but the bang for the buck that (the schools) are getting I think benefits us as a state,” she said.

Also cut from this year’s budget was $181,000 for the Division of Agriculture’s Farm to School program. Started in 2009, that initiative was designed to simply foster relationships between farmers, fishermen and schools. The Commerce Department grants were a separate but related program.

Together, the short-lived programs managed to gain national notoriety. A U.S. Department of Agriculture State Farm to School program report published in March of this year used Alaska’s local food in schools work as one of four national case studies of successful programs.

According to the report, 22 states and the District of Columbia had enacted farm-to-school legislation through 2014.

Ag Division Director Franci Havemeister said by 2012 the program had reached 38 districts, about 70 percent of the school districts in the state.

“I think that everybody, including the Legislature, recognized the good work the program had done,” Havemeister said.

Without state funding, the division is very close to securing a federal reimbursable services grant to continue the Farm to School program from the Department of Education, she said. However, that means abiding by Uncle Sam’s stipulations instead of doing completely what the state wants.

Petersburg’s Kludt-Painter said her district forward-funded the food service budget with $60,000 each of the next two years because keeping superior offerings on plates is such a priority. Petersburg is also trying to source as much local fish as possible, she said.

It’s of particular importance in her district, which offers breakfast, snack, lunch and after school meals, because some kids do most of their eating during the year at school, according to Kludt-Painter.

“We’re hoping that we can continue to use as many of those (Alaska) products as possible if we can manage, just because the quality is better, the kids like them better and we like using things that are Alaska-grown. We just do,” she said.

From each end of the supply chain, Kludt-Painter and Meyers both indicated shipping costs as being at least as much of a challenge as wholesale pricing.

Reimbursement request statements from the state grant program show shipping expenses being as much as a third of the total cost of in state produce.

Still, Meyers was ultimately optimistic about his ability to meet districts’ pricing needs as he expands.

“I’ll definitely work with the schools I’ve been working with,” Meyers said. “I’m sure there’s absolutely no reason I can’t get them my stuff for the same price they’re getting other stuff elsewhere.”

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

11/20/2016 - 3:57pm