Sitka Conservation Society
May 10 2012

Celebrating a Year of Fish to Schools

The Sitka Conservation Society’s Fish to School Program has nearly completed its first full school year with raving reviews, community support, and strong partnerships. These local fish lunches are served as a hot lunch option through the school lunch program. Lunches are available to all students, totaling about 700 students with about half of those students consistently eating hot lunch.

In just one year we have seen local fish lunch consumption rates almost double at Blatchley Middle School (BMS), at an average of about 39%. I remember a lunch at BMS where a student tempted her friend to try the fish fillet. She was very skeptical but after trying it couldn’t get enough and began to feed her other friends! Check out this video on Fish to Schools at BMS by local filmmaker Hannah Guggenheim.

At Keet Gooshi Heen Elementary (KGH), where fish was introduced this fall, we are seeing rates of about 30% participation, with a few lunches peaking above 40%. Students consistently rave about the local fish lunches. One elementary school student at a recent lunch said, “I don’t like the fish lunches, I love them!” Other students tell me that they always get fish when it’s on the menu even though they generally pack lunches from home.

This spring we were delighted to collaborate with two new schools, Pacific High School (PHS) and Mount Edgecumbe High School (MEHS). PHS has a unique school lunch program with students serving as cooks for their classmates while learning commercial kitchen skills that lead to a job-ready Food Handlers Certification.  In this program, they prepare unique dishes, including Caribbean rockfish with sweet potato fries, rockfish marinara, and crispy-baked rockfish.

MEHS finished off the school year with their first fish lunch after a year-long, grassroots student campaign to get local fish into their school. Student organizers from the Alaska Youth for Environmental Action (AYEA) Club led the charge by raising awareness about the environmental benefits of eating locally-harvested fish and polled students to see if they wanted to see fish at their school. 90% of students said, “Absolutely, yes!” Their efforts culminated in mouthwatering fish tacos this April.

Education programs were integrated into the third and seventh grade classes along with fish lunches. Students followed the cycles of fish from their native habitat to their lunch tray by interviewing local fishermen, hearing stories from Alaska Natives, dissecting and filleting salmon, and preparing tasty dishes with a local chef. Cultural knowledge, nutrition, and food systems were woven throughout the program. Local fish lunches paired with the Stream to Plate Curriculum brings students closer to their culture and the backbone of Sitka. Serving students local fish and exposing them to the fishing culture, connects them to their home and develops a sense of pride for being a part of a community that supports itself on the best (tasting and managed) seafood in the world.

The Sitka Fish to Schools program was awarded the Best Farm to School Project in Alaska for the 2011-2012 school year. It is a community-wide honor, recognizing all of the stakeholders involved in the program: food service, local seafood processors, fishermen, school district, principals, teachers, and community volunteers. Alaska’s First Lady, Sandy Parnell, came to a local fish lunch to recognize our local efforts in Sitka. We are thrilled that she personally came to show her support for our creative use of local foods in the school lunch program. We hope her interest will continue to increase the profile of this program and that we will see continued support for these efforts statewide.

The Sitka Conservation Society hopes that this program will create closer connections between our community and the natural resources from the environment around us.  Through its implementation, youth and stakeholders will gain an increased understanding of how we use and depend on the land and waters of the Tongass.  With the fish on our plates at home and at school, we will, as a community, make better decisions on the management and future of those resources that we intimately depend on.  Further, we hope that this program will influence the USDA, and the policy makers who direct it, to focus on a more sustainable school lunch food system by using local sources for food.  And, importantly, our school districts will teach children about local natural resources and the jobs and livelihoods in our community by using hands-on, real-world learning experiences.

Apr 17 2012

Fish to Schools to be Honored at Benefit Dinner on Wednesday 4/25

When people from the lower 48 think of Alaska, images of the Deadliest Catch, the debate around drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the open tundra of the north often come to mind. But, there is a lot more to Alaska.

Despite the long winters and short summers Alaska is joining the nation’s growing farm to school movement. There are only a few farm to school programs in the Last Frontier recognized by the Alaska Farm to School Program. One of those programs is Fish to School.

Sitka’s Fish to School program is coordinated by the Sitka conservation Society, but it relies on the entire community to make it happen. It is a stellar program that interweaves a stream to plate curriculum, hands-on learning, tours of local processors and fish options on the cafeteria menus. This is the second year running and it is getting better with age. Even Alaska’s First Lady Parnell had a Fish to School lunch with the students on April 11th.

The Alaska Farm to School Program also thinks it is an A-plus project. On April 25th, SCS’s Fish to School program will be honored with the award of best farm to school program in Alaska for the 2011-2012 school year. Johanna Heron from the state’s Department of Natural Resources will present the award during a special Benefit dinner that will raise funds to cover the cost of next year’s school fish lunches.

The Benefit dinner will be prepared by Chef Colette Nelson, proprietor of Ludvig’s Bistro, and Pacific High School students. Chef Nelson, has been creating recipes for students at Pacific High School throughout the winter. Students rotate the responsibility of preparing lunch for the rest of the small alternative school as part of their food handler’s license job training. And then, they voted on their favorite recipe.

Crispy Oven Baked Rockfish won overwhelmingly. That entrée will be featured at the Benefit dinner and will be a model for future school lunches. The menu also includes salad with Alaska grown beets, sweet potato fries, blackened broccoli, home made bread, and carrot cake with Alaska grown carrots.

This is a community wide award ceremony and Benefit. Sitka proves that it defiantly takes a village to feed local, healthy seafood to the children and teach them about the wonders of fishing. Volunteer coordinators, the school food management service, fishermen, Tlingit elders all make the Fish to School program the best in Alaska, and possibly the best in the nation.

If you are in Sitka on April 25th, Sitka Conservation Society invites you to celebrate Fish to Schools. Eat some fish, support this local initiative, have fun, and help keep local fish in the schools! It will take place at Sweetland Hall on the historic Sheldon Jackson Campus. Doors open at 5:30pm and dinner begins at 6:00pm. Pricing structure: $20.00 adults, $15 seniors/students, and $5.00 for children. Tickets are available at Old Harbor Books.

To learn more about the Fish to School program visit and for information about the event, contact Tracy Gagnon at (907) 747-7509 or

Mar 05 2012

4H Alaska way-of-life: Following wild game from forest to stew.

The much anticipated deer stew has been put up, 37 pints worth! After months of patience, 4H members got to see their skinned and butchered deer turn into a shelf-stable food. And a delicious one at that! 4H members gathered around a large table full of ingredients that needed prepping. We rotated through different stations of washing and skinning potatoes, chopping garlic and onions, dicing carrots and celery, and slicing up deer and moose meat. We all commented on how together, as a community, we could accomplish so much. It brought me so much joy to be working alongside my new friends (young and younger..) putting up food until hunting season begins again next August.

After our raw ingredients were prepped we filled our jars with a little of this and a little of that. Potatoes, meat, carrot, onion, garlic and celery were layered in each jar and topped with salt, pepper, spices, and a little bit of a stock mix before carefully cleaning each jar rim and capping with a top and ring. The jars were then placed in two large pressure canners and once they reached a pressure of 10#s were cooked for 110 minutes. Once the timer alerted us that they were done, we turned off the heat letting the pressure and temperature come down naturally. Once it was safe to open, we removed the jars and delighted in the popping sound that comes with a finished product!

I have to say that this was an activity that I was really looking forward to. I feel more empowered when I can put up food for myself, knowing every ingredient and its source. I have learned that hunters are very close to the land, know its subtleties and patterns, and have a deep respect for the lives that they are taking for food. That respect is carried through the entire process from the hunt, to processing, and cooking. These 37 pints of deer stew carry with them stories of community and the gratitude of a life for a life. We will share these delicious jars with 4H volunteers, mentors, and elders to continue the story…

A big thank you to 4H Parent and Subsistence Biologist for the Forest Service, Jack Lorrigan for sharing this important skill with the 4H Alaska way-of-life Club!


Feb 29 2012

4H Cloverbuds — Pies and Illumination

The Tongass provides an abundance of wild salmon berries, blueberries, and huckleberries—what better way to enjoy their wild summer flavors than in a pie shared with friends and family? The Cloverbuds 4H Club learned how to bake pies this week, mastering a home-baked good that many shy away from. Each Cloverbud went home with a pie ready to bake; for many it was their first (and for the parents too!).

Each member made their their dough, patted it into a round, and rolled it out to fit in the pie dish. Fillings were poured in and tops were added. It was great to see youth who were overwhelmed by the thought of making pie or touching butter get into the process and see (and eat ) their final product. Sharing foods, especially ones with locally-harvested foods is a deep pleasure that connects us to place.

After our pie-baking extravaganza, we met to create light. Candles today often add ambiance to rooms but historically they were a critical light source. Students got to rotate through different stations, creating three different types of candles. They each dipped candles, resulting in chubby little pillars perfect for the next birthday cake. They filled a votive mold and also decorated jars with glitter, marbles, stones, and sprinkles to create personalized candles. After the melted wax was poured, wicks were placed in the center, and we patiently waited for them to dry. The candles turned out beautifully—putting a few in our survival kits wouldn’t be a bad idea for emergencies.

A big thank you to parents Eric Kaplan and Susea Albee for leading the activities for the month and parents Paty and Scott Harris for hosting!

Feb 28 2012

Tanning Deer Hides with the Alaska way-of-life 4H Group

Earlier this month 4H members went to Ed Gray’s local tannery at the Sawmill Industrial Park. We were instantly immersed in his world of preserving hides, the process between skinning an animal and the hide that sits nicely on your couch or lines your mittens. Ed Gray took us through this process step by step. What I write below is an over-simplification but will give you an idea of what it takes to preserve an animal hide.

First the hide needs to be scraped to remove any remaining flesh that could rot, this process is appropriately called “fleshing.” Ed has his own unique method, but I won’t share his secret here! It is then salted, which acts as a preservative and pulls out excess liquid. Once the skin is dry and the hair is set, the skin is rehydrated and placed in a pickling solution of water, salt and acid (Ed uses a plant-acid). This swells the skin so it can be shaved, creating a softer pelt. Ed said it took him over 300 hours to master this fine technique. The hide is then placed in another solution with an adjusted pH allowing it to react with the tanning solution where it sits for 15 hours. Then the skin is removed and allowed to dry overnight before it is oiled and dried almost completely, about 90%. The skin is then tumbled in a hardwood powder to finish the drying process by removing any remaining oils. The process is complete once it is tumbled in a wire cage to remove the wood flour and then buffed creating a soft and shiny hide for the proud hunter.

Students got to touch a number of hides in different stages of the process and got to test (under supervision of course) the acidity level of the solutions using pH strips. Ed showed us how a number of his pieces of equipment worked (some ingenious yet simple and others more complicated needing very refined motor skills). Ed works with all animal hides ranging from sea otter to marten to bear and will be working individually with one of our 4H members on his very own deer hide.

This skill continues to be cherished in the local community, with two operating tanneries in Sitka. Traditionally tanning hides (often with the natural acids found in the brain) was a source of warmth in the cold winters. Today it serves as a connection to the past, to keep the tradition alive. It is a skill that we find valuable to share with 4Hers as a reminder of how we used to survive using only local resources native to the area. Although we had an introduction on how to tan on a commercial scale, we may continue to explore this topic if there is interest and learn how to tan hides as a survival skill.

THANK YOU to Ed Gray for sharing his local knowledge of tanning animal hides.

Feb 13 2012

We Love our Fishermen!

Check out this incredible video created by our good friend and local filmmaker, Hannah Guggenheim, documenting the “We Love our Fishermen Lunch” on 2/8/2012.

WE LOVE OUR FISHERMEN!  The Fish to Schools Program began as a vision at the 2010 Sitka Health Summit and with community support and leadership from the Sitka Conservation Society, we are now working with over half of students enrolled in the Sitka School District. This program is a component of our Community Sustainability efforts and we hope through this program we can begin to build a stronger, more resilient local food system. Fish to Schools ensures that students, whose families may not generally be able to afford local fish, have access to it directly through the school lunch program. These lunches provide a boost of nutrients and Omega 3 fatty-acids, supports the sustainable fisheries of Alaska, and validates the backbone of this community and culture.

On February 8, 2012, fishermen were invited to both Keet and Blatchley Middle Schools. They joined students for their bi-monthly local fish lunch, bringing with them stories from the sea, fishing gear, and photos to make the connection between this profession and the fish on their plates. Both schools plastered the cafeterias with student-made posters, cards, and valentines thanking fishermen for their contribution to the program. Fishermen led students around the cafeteria with lures, created a longline set in the middle of the lunch room, and generated a lot of hype around the lunches.

Sitka Conservation Society would like the individually thank the following groups and individuals for making this special lunch a success: Seafood Producers Coop, Sitka Sound Seafoods, Nana Management Services, Staff at Keet and Blatchley, Beth Short, Wendy Alderson, Lexi Fish, Hannah Guggenheim, Andrianna Natsoulas, Jason Gjertsen, Terry Perensovich, Doug Rendle, Sarah Jordan, Eric Jordan, Matt Lawrie, Spencer Severson, Jeff Farvour, Beth Short-Rhodes, Stephen Rhodes, Kat Rhodes, Scott Saline, Charlie Skultka, Kent Barkau, Lew  Schumejda, Bae Olney-Miller, and Jeff Christopher.

This lunch coincided with the beginning of the “Stream to Plate” lesson series with seventh graders in Ms. Papoi’s science class. The first of five lessons introduced students to how fish are caught in SE Alaska through subsistence, sport, and commercial fishing methods. The class began “back in time” as AK Native, Charlie Skultka, shared with students traditional methods of fish harvest. With models and relics from the SJ Museum, he demonstrated how fish traps and halibut hooks worked. Roby Littlefield, coordinator of Dog Point Fish Camp and Tlingit language instructor at Blatchley, showed students photos of students actually participating in current subsistence traditions. She told stories from camp and demonstrated how these practices continue today. Following their presentation, local fishermen Beth Short-Rhodes, Steven Rhodes, Jeff Farvour, and Steven Fish, shared with students how they commercially fish for salmon, halibut, rockfish, and blackcod. Students had the opportunity to interview and ask guests questions in small groups, developing a relationship with community members in town. This week students will learn about the importance of conservation and sustainability in fishing and more specifically how the Tongass is a Salmon Forest.

Feb 06 2012

Fish to Schools live on KCAW with three Sitka students!

Listen to a live radio broadcast of the Sitka Conservation Society’s Fish to Schools Program. This program exemplifies our commitment to community sustainability by connecting students to local, healthy, and affordable seafood. Twice a month students are served local fish for lunch at Keet Gooshi Heen, Blatchley Middle School, and now Pacific High. To supplement the program, third and seventh grade students participate in a “Stream to Plate” curriculum, learning the story behind their lunch.

On this KCAW morning interview, Sitka students, Grace Gjertsen (3rd grade), Zofia Danielson (6th grade), and Sienna Reid (7th grade), join Beth Short and Tracy Gagnon to talk about the local fish lunches. These three students typically bring a lunch from home, but on the second and fourth Wednesday of the month, they stand in line for local fish. They share fishermen valentines and tell us why these lunches are so special. Check out the radio broadcast here.

Feb 04 2012

Thank you Fish to Schools, Sincerely Pacific High

Dear Sitka Conservation Society,
Thank you for bringing fish into our school, Pacific High School. You are not only forging a new path in the National School Lunch Program, you are changing the system. Each fish you provide to the schools in the district enriches our student’s nutrient profile as well as connecting them to their food source. Thank you for making Pacific High School’s Lunch Program the best it can be. The Fish to School Program supports an educational program that is in alignment with PHS’ belief in connecting each student to their surrounding environment and foodshed. We look forward to forging a lasting relationship between Fish to Schools and PHS for years to come.

Johanna Willingham checking on the Carribean Rockfish lunch. YUM!

Thank you,

Johanna Willingham
Pacific High
School Lunch Coordinator

Feb 03 2012

Sitka Black Tailed Deer: Traditional Subsistence Meat in Southeast Alaska

Nov 2011. On an autumn Saturday afternoon, a group of kids gathered around a deer hanging in the Sitka Sound Science Center barn. At first they stood a few feet back, taking the deer in slowly with curious gazes. They got more comfortable as Jack Lorrigan, the father of one of the children, began to explain how to skin the deer and butcher it into choice cuts of meat. Over the next two hours, Jack, the Subsistence Biologist with the Forest Service, demonstrated the various cuts and allowed kids and parents alike to wield the knife. Jack also shared stories of how he learned to hunt from his mother, carrying on indigenous traditions, and he offered important ecological considerations from his work as a subsistence biologist. Andrew Thoms, executive director at the Sitka Conservation Society, helped Jack teach the lesson. Andrew shot the deer along with Joel Martin and Paulie Davis on Kruzof Island about 10 miles from Sitka.

For the people of Sitka, Alaska, subsistence hunting and gathering is an important part of life.  The Tongass National Forest that surrounds Sitka provides many of these resources.  SCS works to protect the resources of the Tongass as well as helping pass along the conservation skills and values that will allow us to live as part of this landscape forever.  The Alaska-way-of-life 4H club is part of the ways that Sitka youth are learning about their environment and being part of the community.

We will follow the deer from forest to plate in the month of February. Members will learn how to tan hides from Ed Gray at his local tannery and will can deer stew for future enjoyment of this local food source.

Note:  In following with time-honored subsistence traditions passed down from peoples who have occupied this landscape for millennia, at least half of the deer meat from this activity was shared with neighbors, friends and elders.

Jan 30 2012

The Alaska way-of-life 4H Club Goes Tracking

For the month of January, the Alaska way-of-life 4H club focused on tracking and trapping in the Tongass National Forest. These important skills further connect us to the natural environment as we notice the habits of the animals and birds in our shared ecosystem. Tracking as a skill gives us more capacity to understand the workings of the forest and thus the compassion to protect it. Traditionally this activity was fundamentally crucial, and continues to be, as a source of food and animal pelts (for clothing, warmth, and trade).

We began the unit earlier this month by gathering around a table overflowing with animal pelts. We identified the animals native to the island and began matching each animal to its print. Ashley Bolwerk from the Science Center taught us the steps involved in tracking animals: 1) know your location and the animals native to it, 2) note the size, pattern, and type of track, 3) check for distinguishing details like number of toes, nails, etc., 4) note other animal signs like scat, fur, feathers, eating patterns, etc.

In addition to learning the basics of tracking, Kevin Johnson and Tyler Orbison, both local trappers, met with the older 4H group to show them the fundamentals of tracking mink and martens. They got to practice setting up the different traps (more difficult than one may think) and directed question after question to our guests.

On Saturday, we got to put study into action. We had a blast roaming the coastline and snowy forest searching for tracks and signs of animals nearby. We successfully saw the tracks of deer, mink, marten, squirrel, raven, and swan including scat and signs of grazing. The older kids were joined once again by trapper, Kevin Johnson, who demonstrated where and how to place traps in the forest. He also, to our delight, showed 4H members how to skin a marten in the field. Everyone was awe-eyed and attentive as he quickly removed the hide from body, an excellent lesson in anatomy.

Check out the pictures—they tell a better story than words ever will. These activities would not have been possible without the help of: Kevin Johnson, Tyler Orbison, Jon Martin, Kent Bovee, Ashley Bolwerk, Andrew Thoms, and the Science Center. THANK YOU!

**Although a bit out of order, 4Hers have learned how to identify deer tracks, skin and butcher a deer, and in February will learn how to tan hides and can deer stew. A forest to plate series!

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