• Alaska’s potential for increasing agricultural potential immense; hard work, clear vision needed

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(The following is a commentary about increasing Alaska’s access to local food by Alaska Food Policy Council co-chairs Liz Snyder and Victoria Briggs. It originally ran in the Sept. 10, 2015, edition of the Homer News.)

 

If you’ve visited a local farmers market recently, you’ll appreciate the bounty of delicious, healthy food that Alaska can produce when cultivated by knowledgeable, dedicated hands.

The prospects for increasing this bounty are immense. To take full advantage of our agricultural potential, we will need political will, consumer advocacy, recruitment and education of new farmers, financial support and incentives and a long-term vision. This vision, of course, will also need to take into account the changing climate in which Alaska farmers grow our food.

Imagine a glacier that retreats, then expands for several years, only to retreat again, repeating this process over and over. Such has been the history of agriculture in Alaska. We’ve experienced several booms and busts of both enthusiasm and productivity since the early 1900s.

Booms were the result of such things as co-development with gold mining, collaboration with local businesses, federal support of farming settlements and agricultural innovations. Busts came when challenges (that still exist today) got the better of farmers — the temptation to grow too big too fast, unsustainable and mismanaged support mechanisms, high costs and resulting debt; competition from the Lower 48, infrastructure designed for resource development instead of agriculture, inexperience and being far from home, a lack of replacements for retiring farmers, and, of course, climate.

Today, farmers and consumers are enjoying a boom of interest and enthusiasm around local foods. While it’s true that we send about 1.9 billion Alaska dollars out of the state each year to import food (which supplements the impressive $900 million worth of subsistence and personal-use foods), the good news is that direct sales between farmers and consumers are strong (13 times greater than the national average), Alaska farmers are notoriously tenacious and innovative, and demand continues to motivate increases in supply.

What we have now is a fantastic opportunity to throw a wrench into the boom/bust cycle, expand on the status quo and ultimately pump about $2 billion into, instead of out of, the Alaska economy each year — in effect, supporting the local farmers we know and love, strengthening our food system, lowering food costs, and increasing food security and resilience.

Of course, strengthening our food system will require both short-term goals and long-term planning. When it comes to climate change and agriculture, we’ve got three courses of action to consider:

  1. reduce our impact;
  2. respond to current changes; and
  3. prepare for future changes.

In the Lower 48, agriculture is a major contributor to climate change with high fossil fuel use (to manufacture pesticides and fertilizers, and to operate machinery) and greenhouse gas emissions from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs).

In Alaska, however, the relative scales of agriculture and pest pressure are small. Our primary agriculturally related contribution to climate change is through the importation of approximately 95 percent of our food, which requires the burning of fossil fuels to power transport. Just think of the impact we could have if we expanded Alaska agriculture in thoughtful, sustainable ways to simultaneously produce more food and reduce total greenhouse gas emissions.

With respect to responding to current changes in Alaska’s climate and preparing for the future, we have a host of actions that are either already being taken or need to be taken. These actions should use the best natural, economic and social science information available.

Such preparations include the conservation of arable land; crop diversification and expansion into new growing zones; anticipation of changes in water distribution and quality; measures to address changes in pest, disease and invasive species pressures; education and support of new farmers focused on sustainable agricultural development, and construction of weather-resistant food caches and transportation routes.

Of course, in reality there is an even longer list of recommendations that can be made to strengthen Alaska’s food system, but all of these recommendations will need to be made in light of the climate changes we’re experiencing now and those that lie ahead. The Alaska Food Policy Council is dedicated to helping develop, share and advocate for policies that will result in an Alaska food system that is sustainable, resilient and healthy — and we ask our local, state, and federal leaders to tune in to the issues of food security and climate change and make them a priority. The health of our great state depends on it.

Liz Snyder and Victoria Briggs are co-chairs of the Alaska Food Policy Council, or AFPC. To learn more about food security in Alaska, find the following research resources on the AFPC webpage (akfoodpolicycouncil.wordpress.com):

Building Food Security in Alaska (a report commissioned by AFPC).

• A three-part series of articles (Part I, Part II, Part III) on circumpolar agriculture by Stevenson et al. (2014) and

• An article entitled “Food in the Last Frontier” by Snyder and Meter (2015).

• Alaska Food Policy Council asks state legislators to return Farm to School program funds to the budget

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(Editor’s note: The following item is a letter to the editor from the Alaska Food Policy Council sent to several newspapers around Alaska regarding cuts to the Farm to School Program. One of the three signers to the letter is Sitka Local Foods Network Board President Lisa Sadleir-Hart, who also serves on the Alaska Food Policy Council governing board. To learn more about the Alaska Farm to School Program, check out the brochure below or contact Program Coordinator Johanna Herron at 907-761-3870 or johanna.herron@alaska.gov.)

As the legislature continues swinging its scythe at the state budget, one of the programs about to be felled is Farm to School. And in case you don’t have kids that can tell you firsthand the benefits of the program, or if you’re not an Alaska grower that finds a market in supplying school cafeterias with Alaska Grown produce, let us tell you what the Department of Natural Resources, Division of Agriculture, Farm to School Program does: It provides expertise and support for those working to increase the connection of students, teachers, and school food service providers with products grown and produced in Alaska. This connection most commonly happens in the school lunchroom or in a school garden.

Yet, in a state that prides itself in self-reliance, consider these striking facts:

  1. Alaskans spend $1.5 BILLION dollars on imported food each year.
  2. Only 5-10 percent of food consumed is produced or harvested in state, but great swaths of arable land remain uncultivated.
  3. About 15 percent of Alaska households are food insecure.
  4. Alaskans spend about $450 million dollars on treating diet-related medical conditions.
  5. We have a population that is largely disconnected from the food system – most kids can’t tell you what lies beneath the frilly green of a carrot top coming out of the soil.

These figures might sound gloomy, but they highlight the immense opportunity that we have to become healthier, wealthier, and more food secure. What if we spent that $1.5 billion on Alaska Grown products and kept that money in local economies? What if we produced more healthy foods in quantities that could meet the demands of our school cafeterias? What if we provided our children with the tools and knowledge necessary to make healthy food choices and maintain a healthy weight?

WhatIsAlaskaFarmToSchoolWe already have a key mechanism to achieving these goals – it’s the Farm to School Program. The Farm to School Program helps to prioritize getting locally produced, healthy goods into cafeterias; raise a generation of food leaders and smart consumers; and create a large, reliable market for increased in-state food production.

In three short years, the number of Alaska School Districts involved in Farm to School has grown from zero to 68 percent! There’s been an 11-percent increase in school gardens state-wide. One-hundred percent of the school districts are now serving at least one local food item in their meal programs and there’s still tremendous room for growth. In five years, the program has leveraged over $1 million dollars from partner agencies. This is just the shortlist of accomplishments.

All of this and more has been achieved with an annual budget of about $190,000. Talk about bang for your buck! If the legislature eliminates or cuts funding to the Farm to School Program, they aren’t cutting the fat out of the budget. They are cutting the carrots, the potatoes, the greens, and even the local fish out of your children’s lunches, and they’re cutting supports necessary to expand in-state production.

We implore the legislature not to eliminate or reduce the funding for our Farm to School Program. It is an incredibly efficient use of a small amount of funds that has proven itself over the past five years and is one of the shining pillars of a state food system that is becoming stronger, more sustainable, and more resilient. Don’t let the legislature undo our current progress, and don’t let it stand in the way of what more can be done.

Signed,

Liz Snyder, Victoria Briggs, and Lisa Sadleir-Hart
Present and Past Board Co-Chairs, Alaska Food Policy Council (AFPC)

• Alaska Farm to School Brochure

• ‘Building Food Security in Alaska’ report released during Alaska Food Festival and Conference

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The release of a new report, “Building Food Security in Alaska,” was one of the highlights of the recent Alaska Food Festival and Conference (Nov. 7-9 at the University of Alaska Lucy Anchorage Cuddy Center). This is one of the first comprehensive statewide food security reports compiled for Alaska.

The report was written by Ken Meter and Megan Phillips Goldenberg of the Crossroads Resource Center in Minneapolis, which has done six in-depth statewide food assessments over the past five years and 14 statewide food assessments overall. The report was commissioned by the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, with collaboration from the Alaska Food Policy Council.

The Crossroads Resource Center website provides this summary of the report:

Like most other states, Alaska imports about 95 percent of the food it purchases. Yet this state is more distant from prevailing food production regions than other states. Alaskans feel a special sense of vulnerability. Despite a rich history in dairy and cattle production, most of these foods are now imported. Much of the arable farmland has been paved over by development. Moreover, Alaskans who wish to purchase some of the $3 billion of seafood harvested from its ocean waters typically have no choice but to buy through Seattle vendors.

Still, farms produce a rich variety of crops and livestock. Direct sales from farmers to household consumers run at 13 times the national average, amounting to one of every six dollars farmers earn selling food to humans. Lettuce, peppers, and cucumbers are available year-round from indoor farms. Chickens are grown inside greenhouses that rely upon surplus heat from nearby buildings.

In no other state is harvesting wild foods as important. Subsistence and personal use hunters bring in an estimated $900 million worth of salmon, caribou, moose, foraged greens and berries, and other foods. Yet even here, hunters and gatherers face special challenges: a decline of hunting skills, weakening ice, changing migrations, and radioactive fallout.

Our study, written by Ken Meter and Megan Phillips Goldenberg, offers practical steps for building a more reliable food supply by growing, storing, and marketing more Alaska-grown food to Alaskans. Commissioned by the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services.

Copies of the full 180-page report and a shorter executive summary and recommendations are linked below. In addition, most of the presentations and panel discussions from the Alaska Food Festival and Conference can be found here. This link includes a keynote presentation by Sitka Local Foods Network Board President Lisa Sadleir-Hart about the experience of compiling the Sitka Community Food Assessment, plus Sitka residents Keith Nyitray of the Sitka Food Co-op and Gordon Blue of the Alaska Sustainable Fisheries Trust participated in panel discussions about food cooperatives and community-based fisheries, respectively.

In addition, earlier this year two locally focussed food assessments were released. Copies of the Sitka Community Food Assessment Indicators Report (released in April 2014) and the Southeast Alaska Food System Assessment (released in February 2014) can be found in the Documents section of our website.

• Building Food Security in Alaska, Executive Summary and Recommendations, by Ken Meter and Megan Phillips Goldenberg (released November 2014)

• Building Food Security in Alaska, by Ken Meter and Megan Phillips Goldenberg (released November 2014)

• Sitka Local Foods Network one of five Alaska organizations in the Food Tank and James Beard Foundation’s 2014 Good Food Org Guide

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The Sitka Local Foods Network is one of five Alaska food organizations included in the Food Tank and James Beard Foundation‘s 2014 Good Food Org Guide, released on Oct. 26.

According to the Food Tank website, ‘This definitive guide highlights nonprofit organizations that are doing exemplary work in the United States in the areas of food and agriculture, nutrition and health, hunger and obesity, and food justice. Only nonprofit, scholarly, and municipal initiatives have been selected in order to spotlight efforts that are focused on community building and engagement, advocacy, and service.”

The guide is meant to be a definitive resource that highlights the exemplary work non-profit organizations in the United States are doing on food and agriculture, nutrition and health, hunger and obesity, and food justice.

In addition to the Sitka Local Foods Network, the other Alaska groups included in the guide are the Alaska Food Coalition, the Alaska Food Policy Council, the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank, and Kids’ Kitchen, Inc. You can download a copy of the 2014 Food Org Guide by clicking the link below.

• Food Tank and James Beard Foundation’s 2014 Good Food Org Guide

• Inaugural Alaska Food Festival and Conference to feature Sitka speakers

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AlaskaFoodPolicyCouncilLogoThree Sitka residents will have prominent roles during the inaugural Alaska Food Festival and Conference on Friday through Sunday, Nov. 7-9, at the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Lucy Cuddy Center. This event is hosted by the Alaska Food Policy Council.

Sitka Local Foods Network Board President Lisa Sadleir-Hart will deliver one of the two keynote speeches during lunch on Friday, when she will discuss food security and the results of the Sitka Community Food Assessment.

Keith Nyitray, president of the Sitka Food Co-op board, will participate in a panel discussion Friday afternoon about the future of food cooperatives in Alaska. Gordon Blue, the president/executive director of the Alaska Sustainable Fisheries Trust (which operates the Alaskans Own Seafood community supported fishery program), will participate in a Friday afternoon panel discussion about innovations to enhancing local fishing livelihoods in coastal Alaska.

This event has a different theme for each of the three days. Friday is the Alaska Food Policy Conference, which features local and national speakers who will present and lead discussions on a variety of food security, production, business and community issues. Saturday is the Alaska Food Festival, which gives participants to sample a variety of Alaska food products, attend short classes on various food topics, shop at the farmers market, etc. The event wraps up Sunday with the Food System Open House, where participants can visit sites in Anchorage that are doing exciting work in our food system.

To register for the Alaska Food Festival and Conference use this link, http://akfoodpolicycouncil.wordpress.com/conference/register/. Registration is $125, or $75 for students. For questions or more information, please feel free to contact the Alaska Food Policy Council at 1-907-269-8072 or akfoodpolicycouncil@gmail.com.

• Alaska Food Resource Working Group to hold inaugural meeting Nov. 4 in Anchorage

(The following is a press release from the Alaska Food Policy Council. Sitka Local Foods Network Board President Lisa Sadleir-Hart is a member of the Alaska Food Policy Council’s governing board.)

Alaska Food Resource Working Group to hold inaugural meeting in Anchorage

Statewide call-to-action on food resource development

AlaskaFoodPolicyCouncilLogoANCHORAGE, Alaska (Oct. 31) – Alaskans spend approximately $2.5 billion dollars on food each year, but only an estimated 5 percent of the food Alaskans buy is produced locally. The Alaska Food Resource Working Group (AFRWG) is tasked with changing that statistic and building a strong, resilient statewide food economy. The AFRWG will hold its inaugural meeting from 10 a.m. until noon on Monday, Nov. 4, in Room 602 of the Robert B. Atwood Building, located at 550 West 7th Avenue in Anchorage.

On June 28, 2013, Gov. Sean Parnell signed legislation calling for the creation of the Alaska Food Resource Working Group (AFRWG) under Administrative Order 265, with the goal of building Alaska’s food economy. As a response to House Concurrent Resolution 1, sponsored by Rep. Bill Stoltze, the Governor signed the administrative order to establish a state agency work group focused on recommending policies and measures to increase the purchase and consumption of local wild seafood and farm products.

The AFRWG will be composed of eight (8) state agency commissioners or designees responsible for the development, oversight, and marketing of locally grown and harvested foods. Increasing collaboration between state and local agencies, the University of Alaska, federal agencies, regional corporations, nonprofit organizations, and the Alaska Food Policy Council (AFPC). Danny Consenstein, Alaska Food Policy Council Governing Board Member, will serve as a representative on behalf of the AFPC.

“[AO 265] recognizes the importance to all Alaskans of developing a secure food system that can provide jobs, support healthy communities, and increase food security to feed the hungry and insulate us from potential disruptions along the food supply chain,” said Lisa Sadleir-Hart (Sitka), Governing Board Member of the Alaska Food Policy Council.

The Alaska Food Policy Council (AFPC) is an independent statewide organization with the vision of a healthy, secure food system that feeds all Alaskans. Over 150 representatives from federal and state agencies, tribal entities, university programs, farmers, fisheries, food systems businesses, and health and hunger agencies serve on the AFPC to determine food policy opportunities to ensure a healthy, self-reliant, and prosperous Alaskan food system. A member of the AFPC Governing Board will serve on the AFRWG to represent the broader group of stakeholders on the Alaska Food Policy Council.

“The Alaska Food Policy Council really believes that the group created by this resolution will ultimately help to both bring Alaska’s rich food resources to market and address issues of access to healthy, nutritious, adequate supplies of food for all Alaskans,” declared Mary Sullivan of the Food Bank of Alaska and Alaska Food Policy Council Legislative Workgroup Chair.

By instituting programs and adopting regulations supporting a vibrant food economy in Alaska, the Alaska State Legislature and the Governor are facilitating momentous steps toward a food secure state. HCR1 and Administrative Order 265 demonstrate the commitment of Alaska’s government to the health, safety, welfare, and overall economic and social well-being of Alaska residents.

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The Alaska Food Policy Council is an independent, statewide organization with a vision for a food secure, healthy Alaska. For more information about the Alaska Food Policy Council, please contact Danny Consenstein by phone at (907) 761-7738 or by email at daniel.consenstein@ak.usda.gov.

• Gov. Parnell signs executive order creating the Alaska Food Resource Working Group

AlaskaFoodPolicyCouncilLogoThe following is a note sent to members of the Alaska Food Policy Council listserv by Diane Peck, MPH, RD, a public health nutritionist with the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services Obesity Prevention and Control Program. Diane also is one of the lead contacts for the Alaska Food Policy Council.

Last Friday (June 28, 2013), at the Palmer Farmers Market, Gov. Sean Parnell signed Administrative Order No. 265 (http://gov.state.ak.us/admin-orders/265.html) to establish the Alaska Food Resource Working Group (AFRWG) to recommend policies and measures to increase the purchase and consumption of local wild seafood and farm products. This is a bit different than HCR 01. The AFRWG is composed of eight state agency commissioners or their designee. “The AFRWG shall collaborate with the Alaska Food Policy Council . . . and shall invite a member of the AFPC governing board to represent the AFPC at scheduled meetings.”

The goals of the group are:

  • Develop a mission statement that promotes increased use of locally grown and harvested foods within state and local agencies, institutions, and schools;
  • Identify factors that might discourage or prevent locally harvested and produced food from being purchased by federal, state and local agencies, institutions, and schools;
  • Review existing or proposed programs, policies, statutes, and regulations that impact the state’s food system and recommend to policymakers methods to improve coordination and implementation;
  • Identify research needed to support and encourage increased consumption and production of local foods within the state; and
  • Engage with the public to seek additional input on ways to promote the above-listed goals.

Lots of legislators and several commissioners were at the signing.  The governor said this elevates the group to “sub-cabinet” status.

To learn more about the Alaska Food Policy Council, go to its website or like its Facebook page. Sitka Local Foods Network board president Lisa Sadleir-Hart represents Sitka on the Alaska Food Policy Council.

• Alaska Food Policy Council press release about the executive order