By Melinda Munson

School lunches, like most things in Skagway, are unique. Professional chef, Dylan Healy, heads the Skagway City School lunch program with a part-time helper. Up until the 2020-2021 school year, students had access to a salad bar, international cuisine, fresh fish sourced from Haines and produce grown at local garden stores, thanks in part to grants from Skagway Traditional Council.

Meals were so popular, parents regularly stopped in for lunch. For $5, they could enjoy pork adobo and spend time with their children. That changed when the school kitchen was deemed dangerous. 

“The Skagway School kitchen is beyond its useful life and has been identified as a safety hazard by the State of Alaska Fire Marshal,” said Borough Manager Brad Ryan.

The cost to upgrade the facility was prohibitive, so plans were made to turn the kitchen into classroom space and build a kitchen addition at a price of approximately $2 million.

The new kitchen was meant to serve the school, but also be a resource for the community.

“It is also important to remember that the school is our primary emergency shelter and should be equipped with a fully functional kitchen if we ever need to use it as a shelter for our community,” Ryan said.

Jensen Yorba Wall, Inc. was scheduled to begin kitchen construction in September 2020, but most major projects were halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the loss of a majority of the borough’s revenue. Skagway School converted the outdated kitchen into classrooms but lost their cooking facility. 

Healy transitioned to the Elks where he now prepares bagged lunches that are transported to the school. He said he misses working in the school’s commercial kitchen where he could prepare “hot and whole foods.”

“We (normally) offer something that most public systems can’t even dream of,” Healy said.

Skagway’s scrumptious 

school lunches come at a steep price. Dr. Josh Coughran, superintendent, estimated that each lunch, including the bagged meals, costs the school at least $20 in employee wages. That figure doesn’t include food and equipment purchases.

Skagway does not participate in the National School Lunch Program. Currently, the only way to qualify for a free lunch is to also qualify for SNAP benefits. 

John Hischer, school board president, is aware of the lunch program’s financial model. 

“I think that’s something that we need to look at,” he said.

Hischer, in cooperation with Dahl Memorial Clinic, sent out a food insecurity survey in February. The team received responses from 190 households. Thirty four percent of respondents reported food insecurity issues. Nineteen percent said they often or sometimes cannot feed their children healthy foods.

“If the summer doesn’t go well, we could see an even greater need,” Hischer said. In July, Hischer plans to propose that any child who qualifies for Medicaid receive a free lunch. 

The Skagway Borough Assembly voted May 6 to include the school’s kitchen expansion on their Priority List for Capital Improvement Projects.

This does not mean the municipality can fund the project, but allows the borough to explore grants. Meanwhile, the school is examining temporary solutions such as the acquisition of a food truck.

Healy wants to get back to feeding Skagway kids his international menu. Edamame is his favorite food to introduce to students.

“I teach them how to eat it,” he said. 

Healy feels the lunch program is worth the cost.

“I think it’s important. Education and nutrition are hand in hand.”