State program helps schools get Alaskan grown products, farmers find more markets

Mar 1, 2013

The Fairbanks North Star Borough School District is buying more locally grown produce from area farmers, with the help of a new statewide program that helps Alaskan farmers develop new markets for their products.

Alaska's Farm to School Program helps promote the use of locally produced vegetables in schools, grown by farmers and by students themselves in gardens such as this one at Hunter Elementary in Fairbanks.
Credit Hunter Elementary School

Dylan Gauthier is a sixth-grader at University Park Elementary in Fairbanks, and he has this to say about the new hamburger buns being serving at his school.
“Um – it tastes OK to me,” he said.
Dylan’s somewhat understated evaluation of the new recipe that the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District is using for the bread products that it serves is good news to Amy Rouse, the district’s nutrition services director, because...
“We try to incorporate healthier items without really changing the palatability of it,” she said. “The students really get used to things tasting a certain way, and that consistency.”
In other words, it’s good that Dylan hasn’t noticed much difference in the flavor of the buns since the district began adding barley flour to the recipe this year.
“What we notice with our students is once you tell them something’s healthier, y’know, the brakes kind of come on,” Rouse said.
Rouse says the district is using barley flour to meet federal nutritional guidelines that go into effect next year requiring schools to serve breads that contain at least 51 percent whole grain.
As it happens, there’s a nearby supplier of barley flour to help Alaska schools meet that standard –  Bryce Wrigley, a Delta Junction-area farmer, who’s sold 1,800 pounds of the stuff to the Fairbanks-area district this school year.

Bryce Wrigley
Credit Tim Ellis/KUAC

Wrigley is proprietor of the Alaska Flour Company, the state’s only commercial grain mill. And says ever since he began sending out cards over the past couple of weeks to schools around the state to get the word out about his products, he’s found there’s a lot of interest out there.
“As soon as those postcards hit those schools, we started getting responses back,” Wrigley said. “We’ve averaged probably at least two schools a day that’ve contacted us, to start moving our product into their schools.”
Rouse says in addition to barley flour, the school district also bought more than two tons of cabbage from another Delta-area farm, Frank Borman’s U-Pick, and hundreds of pounds of microgreens like cilantro and pea shoots from the Johnson Family Farm in Fairbanks.
Rouse says the district has over the past year or so been trying to buy more produce from area farms, to support the growers and keep local dollars in the local economy, as much as possible.
“Keeping that economy going – keeping that economy growing – is something that we need to look at, long-term,” she said.
Rouse says students benefit by having better, more nutritious food – and because it’s local, it’s tastier, says University Park Elementary fifth-grader Jaren Bickley.
“I think it’s better because it’s not shipped longer and farther, so it’s more fresh,” Jaren said.
But Rouse says it’s a challenge for the district to buy locally, because most area farmers are not yet able to produce enough to sell on a scale needed by a relatively big institutional buyer like the Fairbanks-area school district. And, local growers just can’t beat the prices of the big food distributors based in the Lower 48 that school districts are accustomed to buying from, in bulk.
“Y’know the larger the manufacturer, the larger the distributor – you have those economies of scale,” she said.

Alaska Farm to School Coordinator Johanna Herron with Palmer farmer Ben VanderWeele.
Credit UAF Cooperative Extension Service

The 2-year-old statewide Farm-to-School program is helping to level that playing field for Alaskan farmers. Johanna Herron, who administers the state Division of Agriculture program, says a $3 million project begun last year offered minigrants of up to $1,000 to 54 schools and districts around the state. Herron says the minigrants helped make Wrigley’s barley-flour prices competitive, and they enabled other districts to offer locally produced food, like bison meat for Tok schools, fresh seafood for Sitka students and veggies for the kids in Juneau-Douglas.
“This is the first year that it’s ramped up, because of the money’s that’s available,” she said. “We’ve seen an incredible increase in the actual serving of local product.”
Herron says state funding for the minigrant project is scheduled to run out next year, but she’s hopeful that the Legislature will come up with money this year to keep the project going.