School meals will reflect budget cuts

The effects of state funding cuts will crop up in student meals across the Kenai Peninsula during the upcoming school year.

The Alaska Division of Agriculture’s Farm to School program and the Alaska Department of Commerce’s Nutritional Alaskan Foods in Schools programs will receive little to no funding for the 2016 fiscal year, meaning Alaska-sourced items will no longer be on the menus in local cafeterias.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District has directly and indirectly utilized grant money from both programs in recent years to bring locally grown produce, honey and wild-caught salmon to the table, said school district Student Nutritional Services Administrator Dean Hamburg.

The school district serves 833,000 lunch and breakfast meals annually, and 34 of the 44 lunchrooms receive products procured with assistance from the two programs, Hamburg said. Allocations from the programs also offered some relief to the nutritional services’ yearly budget.

“It is a very important supplement for all schools in all of Alaska, especially in rural areas,” Hamburg said.

The school district has some carry-over money from the Nutritional Alaskan Foods in Schools program, and some Farm to School projects have cultivated the necessary community relationships to continue farm-to-table practices, Hamburg said.

Students at Tebughna School in the village of Tyonek have worked a 1 1/2-acre agricultural network for four years. It includes two Natural Resources Conservation Service high tunnels and 15 raised beds, said conservation project manager Nicole Swenson in a previous Clarion interview.

Produce from those gardens made its way onto the plates of the students who grew it.

Those projects will remain viable once state funding is not an option as they have developed relationships with other community organizations, Hamburg said.

The only state position that will remain to seek out federal grants for existing state projects is the Farm to School Program Coordinator at the Division of Agriculture, currently held by Johanna Herron. The position is unlikely to remain full time.

Since 2009, the state has budgeted $181,000 each year for the Farm to School program, Herron said.

When cuts were proposed to the program budget, Herron said the public showed up to voice their opinions.

“There was a lot of support and testimony but at the end of the day it wasn’t enough,” she said.

Food in schools Grants Administrator Debi Kruse, said the state is losing a beneficial program that was “off to a good start.”

“Teachers would come to me and tell me there were more students that came to school on days they knew there would be Alaskan food in their meals,” Kruse said. “It started to introduce a new generation to our bounty.”

The program’s reach went beyond students and impacted state producers, she said.

The Kenai Peninsula school district received nearly $129,807 annually through the program, Kruse said. 

The state has allocated $3 million for the past three years for foods in schools, she said.

“No one thought it would last forever, including myself,” Kruse said.

However, the money may have been cut off too early, Kruse said. It takes roughly two to three years of nurturing the essential relationship between a producer and buyer for the project to be self-reliant independent of state funding, she said.

Furthermore, when a grower knows they have a reliable buyer, they will lower the price of their product because they don’t have to charge more ”just to stay afloat,” Kruse said. Programs like the

Nutritional Alaskan Foods in Schools could help bring down the price of Alaska grown foods and overall make the state self-sustaining, she said.

Hamburg and Kruse agreed disruption to Alaska’s food supply is a risk for the state’s population, and are disappointed that students will be receiving most of their meals “from off the barge.”

Kelly Sullivan is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.