Alaska cooks now have a new resource: the “Make it Local” cookbook released this month by the Alaska Child Nutrition Program. It’s a compilation of kid-friendly recipes that feature Alaska-grown ingredients.
But as one Bristol Bay contributor says, it’s getting tougher for many school kitchens to source locally, even as demand for local food grows.
Flip to page 11 of the “Make it Local” cookbook, and you’ll find a recipe for banana muffins. It calls for barley flour grown and milled in Delta Junction – barley flour that makes a 520-mile journey by land and air to arrive in Tanya Dube’s school kitchen in Naknek.
“So it includes barley and whole wheat flour, and we make that pretty regularly here in the school. In fact they had it for breakfast on Wednesday!” she said.
Dube is kitchen manager for the Bristol Bay Borough School District, a district of about 120 students. She was among a group of Alaska food service professionals that helped develop the new cookbook, which was a joint effort of the Department of Education & Early Development, UAF and the Farm to School Program, and funded by a grant from USDA Team Nutrition.
The 110-page cookbook includes recipes for reindeer ratatouille, baked halibut, and teriyaki salmon Caesar salad. Each recipe comes with nutrition facts and portion sizes that meet the USDA’s strict requirements for school lunches.
And, Dube says, each dish is kid tested and approved. That might challenge some adults’ assumptions that kids only want to eat frozen pizza and junk food.
“They love those things too, but knowing that somebody took the time and energy to cook with love for them, that’s my biggest thing,” Dube said. “I mean, that’s how I ended up in this job, is the kids were getting a lot of processed and packaged meals, and I was like, ‘I know I can do better.’”
A couple years ago, Dube began serving meals made with Alaska-grown products, like beef from the Interior and produce grown in Bethel.
Those purchases were made possible by the state’s Nutritional Alaskan Foods in Schools program in 2013.
Now, those “Alaska grown” funds have disappeared. And Dube says that’s made it difficult for small districts like hers to keep buying those local foods.
“Here in Naknek, or up on the North Slope, or in the Southwest Region School District, we can’t really dedicate money to pay $3.99 a pound for Alaska carrots when we can get carrots grown way far away for $1.00 a pound,” Dube said. “So, losing those funds was a big hit for a lot of districts, but I think rural districts took the biggest hit.”
This fall, Dube wrote a letter to Gov. Walker asking him to put the Nutritional Alaskan Foods in Schools program back in the state’s 2017 budget.
With deeper budget cuts on their way, Dube is not optimistic about that request, but she says she has to try.
“Asking for money is kind of an exercise in futility, but I feel like if we don’t ask, they’re gonna forget,” Dube said. “They’re gonna forget that there’s not only school children that benefit from having these products, but it benefits growers and producers. It benefits Alaska businesses, because they can plant more barley, or raise more cattle or pigs. It really benefits the whole food supply chain.”
For now, Dube will do what many in Alaska schools are resigned to do: she’ll keep stretching dollars and doing her best to provide for kids.
In the meantime, how about some banana muffins?
“We use the Alaska barley flour, and there’s 15 bananas in there, so they have a really strong banana flavor… And on that day the kids usually want more than one! So I make extra,” she said.
You can contact the Alaska Child Nutrition Program to request a copy of the new cookbook to be sent to your school, childcare facility, or Head Start agency.