Usually the Sitka Local Foods Network has announced the dates of the summer’s Sitka Farmers Market by now. But, as most of you are aware, these are not ordinary times.
We had been making our usual plans, and even had dates we planned to announce about now, but with the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak we had to go into wait-and-see mode. We even hired two new people to coordinate the Sitka Farmers Market this year — Ariane Martin Goudeau and Nalani James — because we’re losing our market manager of the past three years, Nina Vizcarrondo, to Coast Guard relocation.
Even though we’re in wait-and-see mode, the SLFN feels it does need to update the community.
First, we had big plans to grow even more produce than before at St. Peter’s Fellowship Farm communal garden. We bought a second high tunnel, which has been erected on the site, so we can extend our growing season and have a little help with climate control. Laura Schmidt has been our lead gardener for about a decade, and deserves a lot of respect for how much produce she grows on the small patch of land we have access to behind St. Peter’s By The Sea Episcopal Church. We thank St. Peter’s for allowing us to continue growing food for the community on its property.
Regardless of whether we hold the Sitka Farmers Market or not, we will grow produce this summer at St. Peter’s Fellowship Farm. Sitka’s food security needs more local food, so we plan to find ways to get the food into the community, somehow, someway.
If all things were normal, our plan was to hold seven Sitka Farmers Markets again this summer for our 13th season. Our tentative dates are from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays, July 4, July 25, Aug. 8, Aug. 15, Aug. 29, Sept. 5, and Sept. 19, all at the Alaska Native Brotherhood Founders Hall.
The Sitka Farmers Market is about local food, but it’s so much more. It’s about community and providing local entrepreneurs with a place to sell their products. We really enjoy seeing everybody come together to see their neighbors and friends at the market. That’s a big reason we want to host the market, if it’s possible.
But we don’t know when our shelter-in-place orders are going to end and we can start returning to normal. We are researching alternative ways to get our fresh produce into the hands of Sitka residents. We want to provide fresh produce, but also need to be conscious of everybody’s health during an outbreak.
That may mean going to an online portal, such as the Salt and Soil Marketplace out of Juneau, which has been expanding into Sitka and other towns in Southeast Alaska. Middle Island Gardens, Gimbal Botanicals, and a couple of other Sitka businesses have used Salt and Soil Marketplace, so it’s not a new concept. How it works for Sitka is vendors post their products online, and from Tuesday through Thursday Sitka residents go online and order what they want, with a delivery usually on Saturday.
This is great and relatively easy, except you lose the community aspect of the market when it’s online. Also, the Sitka Farmers Market serves as a business incubator, and we lose that when we can’t have a market.
There’s another thing we lose, and that’s the ability to accept WIC farmers market coupons and SNAP Alaska Quest EBT cards, which is how we get local produce into the hands of lower-income Sitkans. We are still trying to work that problem out. We want to get fresh local produce into this part of the community, because Sitka has some major inequality with about one in every six residents on some form of food assistance program. Our mission is “to increase the amount of locally harvested and produced food into the diets of Southeast Alaskans,” so we have to make sure we include getting food to lower income people.
We will come up with a plan of some sort to make sure we do get produce into the hands of all Sitkans, but we have to be conscious of not spreading the coronavirus. It may mean we donate produce to a local food bank for distribution, or we donate some produce to WIC/SNAP beneficiaries and skip the normal reimbursement we’d get from the state. We have our White E grant to match WIC/SNAP benefits, so we can use that grant to help distribute the food, and absorb some of the loss through our general fund. It’s within our mission, and we can afford to do it for a few months.
Ideally, we will host our Sitka Farmers Markets as normal. But these are unusual times. We will look at what’s happening in mid-May, and we will make a further announcement then as to what our plans are. Hopefully we will be recruiting vendors for our market. If not, we will start setting up an account so people can order produce online.
If you have any questions, feel free to call Sitka Local Foods Network board chairman Charles Bingham at 623-7660 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.