In the Last Frontier, Local Food Is More Than a Luxury
With just one road running in and out of tiny Valdez, Alaska, January’s series of avalanches—which buried Route 4 underneath 50 feet of snow—cut the port town off from the rest of the state for more than a week. It could have been much longer, though, and local officials declared a voluntary evacuation and began shipping food and fuel into the town by barge. With its waterfront location, Valdez was lucky. More remote, inland towns could be cut off altogether, and for much longer, should an avalanche or other disaster hit.
Alaska brings in 95 percent of the $2 billion of food residents consume annually from the Lower 48 and elsewhere. Back in 1955, Alaska sourced 55 percent of its food from out of state. Local leaders, concerned with both economic independence and security in the face of disaster, want to see the state return to its self-reliance of old and stop depending so heavily on foods shipped in from elsewhere.
“I think very broad discussions about what would happen if we had a calamity—how many days’ food do we have on our shelves—is healthy,” says Ken Meter, president and principal executive officer of the Crossroads Resource Center and coauthor of a new report on food security in Alaska. “It’s a matter of the will to say that we believe feeding ourselves is important to do. There are technical ways to do that, but what we lack is the marketing and infrastructure to do it over the long term.”
Although the rise of cold-pressed juice shops and farm-to-table restaurants has helped paint local food as a bourgeois luxury, the stark concerns of a state such as Alaska can illuminate more serious issues faced in the Lower 48 as well. According to Meter, food security and independence is a topic of interest in dozens of American states. How can we get young farmers to grow for local markets, and how do we get consumers to value local products? Each region’s answers to those questions are as different as the local harvest—but given Alaska’s geographic separation from the rest of the country, its answers may carry more weight than elsewhere and give the rest of us plenty to learn from.
In their 180-page report, commissioned by the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services in collaboration with the Alaska Food Policy Council, Meter and coauthor Megan Phillips Goldenberg have put forth a hopeful vision for increasing the amount of local food Alaskans consume. Its reasons for expanding access to healthy, local food extend beyond the possibility of a natural calamity such as an avalanche, touching on issues of health and the economy too.
Sixty-five percent of Alaskans are now overweight or obese—more than twice the national average. As the report points out, medical costs to treat obesity-related conditions surpass $450 million annually, a quarter of the cost of all the food Alaskans eat in a year.
From an economic standpoint, Alaska would surely benefit from keeping more of the $1.9 billion its residents send out of state for food. Even much of the seafood caught in Alaskan waters must be sent to Seattle for processing before coming back to the state for sale and consumption—adding fuel surcharges to already high food prices. Meter figures that if each of Alaska’s 700,000 residents spent just $5 on food purchased from a local farmer or rancher, it would quadruple revenues for the state’s producers.
Despite its long winters, Alaska is well positioned to feed itself. Strolling the Heifers ranked the state No. 16 in its annual Locavore Index, indicating a better-than-most approach to local food. Meter points out that most of the state’s food production is hunted, fished, or foraged—a $900 million industry. What’s more, he says, Alaskan farms lead the nation in food sold directly to consumers, totaling $2.2 million, or about 16 percent of all food sold by the state’s farmers. Growers have traditionally found success with a variety of produce, from potatoes to carrots to beets. The state’s once-thriving dairy industry is ripe for expansion. And Alaska is poised to open up 10,000 acres of new farmland near Fairbanks, which Meter says he’d like to see used by younger, beginning farmers who learn the craft together and share equipment. But he cautions that simply opening up a large swath of land near Fairbanks, from which food could be flown around the state, doesn’t go far enough in addressing the food-security issues in more remote areas.
“We want to encourage as many people as possible in small villages to produce as much food as they want to produce,” he says. “Every person who lives in Alaska is close to somewhere where food can be grown. If we expand the greenhouses and the fields and the storage facilities, that’s a pretty massive investment—but if you’re supporting local food, then you’re going to grow food locally.”
Does Alaska have the political will to follow through on the proposals put forth by Meter and Goldenberg in their report? Last November, Gov. Sean Parnell gathered representatives from almost every state department for the first meeting of the Alaska Food Resource Working Group—an effort that resulted in the Crossroads report. But Parnell appears to have lost a tight gubernatorial race to independent Bill Walker.
Regardless of who sits in the executive’s office, Alaska may have no other choice than to get serious about expanding its local food infrastructure. As Ed Fogels, deputy natural resources commissioner and chair of the Alaska Food Resource Working Group, put it last year to the Alaska Dispatch News, the effort is “not about the trendiness of eating local” but about “safety and the economy.”
“That goes beyond trendiness,” he added.