Gimbal Botanicals wins $1,500 prize in Sitka Food Business Innovation Contest

Gimbal Botanicals owner Hope Merritt, right, poses with her new interns, Nora Skeele, left, and Kassandra Eubank-Littlefield, during a recent trip to harvest seaweed. Gimbal Botanicals recently won $1,500 in the Sitka Food Business Innovation Contest hosted by the Sitka Local Foods Network, and Hope used the prize to hire interns to help her harvest, process and market her local wild food products. (Photo courtesy of Gimbal Botanicals)

Hope Merritt of Gimbal Botanicals makes a sale during a 2014 Sitka Farmers Market (Photo by Charles Bingham, Sitka Local Foods Network)

With a young child eating into her time and a need to expand her business, Hope Merritt of Gimbal Botanicals wanted to hire a couple of interns to help harvest and process her beach asparagus, seaweed, kelp and other local wild foods. This month, Hope received a check for $1,500 after winning the established business category in the Sitka Food Business Innovation Contest sponsored by the Sitka Local Foods Network.

The contest was for Sitka food businesses looking to start or grow their operations and was to provide two $1,500 prizes — one for established businesses and one for start-up businesses (younger than 2 years old) — but there were no entries in the start-up business category so no prize was awarded in that category.

“The Sitka Local Foods Network has had a long relationship with Hope and Gimbal Botanicals at the Sitka Farmers Market, so we’re excited to be able to help Hope grow her business,” Sitka Local Foods Network board president Charles Bingham said. “One of the reasons we launched this contest this year was to try and encourage new local food businesses or the expansion of existing businesses so we have more local food available for Sitka residents. With her local wild foods business, Hope and Gimbal Botanicals provide a true taste of Sitka.”

Gimbal Botanicals has been in business for about a decade, and Hope has been selling a variety of local wild foods such as tea blends, beach asparagus, etc., at the Sitka Farmers Market, Sitka Food Cooperative, to local restaurants and caterers, at Sitka businesses such as Wintersong Soaps and Evergreen Foods, on Allen Marine cruises, and in Juneau, Hoonah and other communities. She also sells her local wild food products on her website, http://www.gimbalbotanicals.com.

“I will use this award to increase my womanpower and in so there should be more products available,” Hope said. “I have already hired two women and because harvesting is still slow we are starting on marketing. We are working with Salt and Soil Marketplace (a regional food hub based in Juneau) right now to get products on their website. I would like to expand my availability with the Sitka Food Co-op. I have also considered a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture, where farmers sell shares in their crops), or a CSH, Community Sustained Harvesting, as I might call it. In this model, customers would order in advanced from me for the whole season. Every time I harvest (about once every two weeks) customers would get their amount of fresh beach asparagus. It’s like pre-marketing.”

From left, Nora Skeele, Kassandra Eubank-Littlefield and Hope Merritt of Gimbal Botanicals harvest seaweed. (Photo courtesy of Gimbal Botanicals)

With the prize money, Hope hired interns Nora Skeele and Kassandra Eubank-Littlefield, who already have been helping out with harvests and will help out with processing and sales. In addition, Hope is helped by her partner, Dan Littlefield, and her mother-in-law, Roby Littlefield.

“This money will help me continue to bring local sea veggies to local markets, beach asparagus and seaweeds as well as my teas,” Hope said, who added that she plans to continue to sell her products at the Sitka Farmers Market. “I am hoping for a bigger presence at the Sitka Food-Co-op this year, making nutritious foods more available for those who value them. All of my products are 100-percent organic. Bringing wild-harvested beach asparagus to the local markets brings a super nutritious food that would otherwise be unavailable to the consumer here in Sitka and Juneau.”

Hope said she takes pride in being able to ethically harvest her sea veggies, which keeps the products sustainable.

“It’s not good enough for me to try to be ethical and sustainable with our fragile eco-systems,” Hope said. “I take great care to ensure sustainable harvesting. The resources I harvest from are healthy and abundant enough to handle the effects of commercial harvesting. If that changes, then we will no longer have those products available.”

Hope also is working with Sitka Tribe of Alaska Social Services to develop an agreement, which hasn’t started yet, where she harvests for those tribal members who can’t get out to harvest themselves.

This was the first year of the Sitka Food Business Innovation Contest, and the Sitka Local Foods Network hoped there would be more entries. “In addition to providing more local food here in Sitka, we want the contest to encourage Sitka food businesses to enter some of the larger innovation contests, such as Path to Prosperity or the Symphony of Seafood,” Bingham said. “But we’re happy for Hope and Gimbal Botanicals, because this business is a good example of how a Sitka foods business can be innovative while sharing the taste of Sitka.”

“I’d like to express my gratitude for this award and the work that Sitka Local Foods Network does in this community,” Hope said. “By promoting local food we are taking valuable steps forward as a community to be more healthy and food secure. This is a passion of mine and why I continue to operate Gimbal Botanicals. I could not operate without the help of friends and family. Gimbal Botanicals is sustained through all the hours that family and friends have donated to the cause working often for tea and beach asparagus. Thanks to my family for supporting and understanding the importance of local, not just for its nutrition but as a way of life. With the expansion of my family, time has shifted and I am unable to produce what I could before motherhood. I will use the money to hire help with harvesting, processing, marketing and at the farmers market.”

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First Baptist Church community garden has limited space available for new gardeners

Were you one of the many Sitkans who lost your garden plot two years ago when the Sitka School District closed Blatchley Community Gardens? The small community garden in front of Sitka’s First Baptist Church has some (limited) space available to grow veggies this year.

The community garden at First Baptist Church is located on the Crabapple Drive side of the church’s property at 514 Halibut Point Road. Some of the ground will need some work, but there is a pile of topsoil by the garden for those building raised garden beds.

Sam Pointer, who is coordinating the space for the church, said about a quarter of the garden’s space is available to Sitka gardeners, and possibly more. To learn more about how you can sign up to use space at the church garden, contact Sam at 623-7775 or dad4lyf@yahoo.com.

In the meantime, we are looking for more community garden space in Sitka. If you have garden space available, contact Sitka Local Foods Network president Charles Bingham at 623-7660 or charleswbingham3@gmail.com.

Sitka Local Foods Network education committee announces its 2018 spring garden classes

Want to learn how to grow your own food? Are you new to Sitka and want to learn what veggies grow in our town? The Sitka Local Foods Network education committee has a list of free 2018 spring garden classes that can help you learn what to do and when to do it so you have a healthy garden.

This spring, most of our classes will take place from 6:30-8 p.m. on Thursdays at the Sitka Unitarian Universalist Fellowship Hall (408 Marine Street, parking off Spruce Street). Each week will feature a different topic, and all classes are free (donations to the Sitka Local Foods Network will be accepted). The class schedule is as follows:

  • Starting A Cottage Foods BusinessSaturday, April 14, 1-3 p.m., Sitka Kitch (505 SMC), taught by Sarah Lewis, in partnership with UAF Cooperative Extension Service and Sitka Kitch, $10 class fee (half-off first market date vendor fee at Sitka Farmers Market, pre-register online at http://sitkakitch.eventsmart.com (click on class title).
  • Gardening in Sitka 101April 19, taught by Michelle Putz and Jennifer Carter.
  • Greenhouse GardeningApril 26, 6-7:30 p.m., taught by Andrea Fraga.
  • Growing Potatoes in SitkaMay 3, taught by Kathy Kyle.
  • Container GardeningMay 10, taught by Charles Bingham.

For more information about the classes, contact Charles Bingham at 623-7660 or charleswbingham3@gmail.com. Other classes may be added at a later date if we find volunteers to teach them. If you are a Sitka gardener who wants to teach a class, contact Charles at the info above.

White E awards Sitka Local Foods Network grant to match SNAP/WIC produce sales

Sitka White Elephant Shop (aka, the White E) volunteer Samantha Skultka, center, presents grant checks on Friday, Feb. 16, 2018, to Sitka Historical Society executive director Hal Spackman, left, and Sitka Local Foods Network board president Charles Bingham. (Photo by Susan Brown)

The Sitka White Elephant Shop (aka, the White E) awarded the Sitka Local Foods Network with a $1,000 grant during its 2018 grant cycle.

The grant will be used to provide matching funds for SNAP and WIC beneficiaries who purchase produce at the Sitka Farmers Market and other events where the SLFN sells produce, such as at the Running of the Boots or at our table on Chelan Produce weeks. The Sitka Local Foods Network began providing SNAP matching dollars for the first $20 of produce purchases at the markets a few years ago when there was a state grant, but last year those grant funds ran out and we used our general fund to match the produce purchases. We also started matching the $5 WIC farmers market produce coupons last year, using our general fund. We grow most of the produce at St. Peter’s Fellowship Farm communal garden, and our satellite gardens around town. St. Peter’s Fellowship Farm is part of the USDA’s The People’s Garden program.

“Our mission is to increase the amount of locally produced and harvested food in the diets of Southeast Alaskans, but buying local produce can be difficult for people on food assistance programs,” Sitka Local Foods Network board president Charles Bingham said. “Our matching funds help get more healthy local produce into the diets of lower-income residents of Sitka. A lot of people don’t realize how much income inequality there is in Sitka, and according to the Sitka Community Food Assessment Indicators Report released in 2014, there were 1,410 people and 766 families receiving SNAP benefits in Sitka during 2013. That’s about one out of six Sitka residents who need extra access to this healthy local produce.”

The White E made several grants during the 2018 grant cycle, but a complete list wasn’t available. The Sitka Local Foods Network thanks the White E for its support.

Like what we do? Now you or your business can sponsor the Sitka Local Foods Network in 2018

The Sitka Local Foods Network created a sponsorship program to help promote our mission, and Sitka businesses and individuals are welcome to join for 2018. The goal of the sponsorship program is to make the projects we undertake (Sitka Farmers Market, St. Peter’s Fellowship Farm, gardening education, etc.) more sustainable.

“Sitka has a precarious position when it comes to food security, and the Sitka Local Foods Network is trying to improve our food security through our mission to increase the amount of locally harvested and produced foods in the diets of Southeast Alaskans,” Sitka Local Foods Network president Charles Bingham said. “Sponsors of the Sitka Local Foods Network are working with an organization and a farmers market that values local food and businesses, fun, premium quality goods and experiences.”

In recent years, the Sitka Local Foods Network has hosted seven Sitka Farmers Markets during the summer (from July to September). We haven’t set our 2018 dates yet, but we anticipate we will have seven markets again this summer. In addition, we grow most of the local produce sold at the markets at St. Peter’s Fellowship Farm communal garden and a couple of other locations in town. We also offer a variety of garden education classes in the spring. One way we ensure fresh, local produce is available to lower-income Sitkans is through our matching program for WIC and SNAP beneficiaries (the first $20 spent on produce at the farmers market). This year we also hope to launch a new food business innovation contest to inspire food entrepreneurs in Sitka.

There are four levels of sponsorship available, and each has its own set of perks.

  • Grower ($2,500-plus) — We’ll hang your banner at ANB Hall during the Sitka Farmers Markets, include your logo and company name prominently in our merchandise and advertisements, and thank you on our social media and web pages. If appropriate for the Sitka Farmers Market, you may set up a free promotional booth.
  • Harvester ($1,000-$2,499) — We’ll hang your banner at ANB Hall during the Sitka Farmers Markets and include your logo and company name in our merchandise and advertisements.
  • Planter ($250-$999) — Your banner will hang at ANB Hall during the Sitka Farmers Markets.
  • Friend ($50-$249) — You are listed on our online sponsor page.

We have limited space for banners at the Sitka Farmers Markets, so please contact us before May 1 to guarantee your spot. To learn more about the sponsorship program, click the link below for details and a registration form. For more information, contact Charles Bingham at (907) 623-7660 or by email at charleswbingham3@gmail.com, or email us at sitkalocalfoodsnetwork@gmail.com.

• 2018 Sitka Local Foods Network sponsorship program details and registration form

Alaska Food Festival and Conference set for Nov. 3-4 in Fairbanks

Come celebrate Alaska’s bountiful harvest and learn about issues affecting the Alaska food system during the third semi-annual Alaska Food Festival and Conference, on Friday and Saturday, Nov. 3-4, at Pike’s Waterfront Lodge in Fairbanks.

Hosted by the Alaska Food Policy Council (AFPC), this event previously took place in Anchorage in 2014 and 2016 and this year moves to Fairbanks.

Sitka Local Foods Network board president Charles Bingham is a member of the AFPC governing board (and former SLFN president Lisa Sadleir-Hart is a former member of the AFPC governing board). There also will be a couple of presentations by Sitkans, including Keith Nyitray of the Sitka Food Co-Op, Elizabeth Herendeen of SalmonState, and Mary Smith of Edible Alaska magazine.

The two-day event opens on Friday with a food systems conference featuring a variety of speakers discussing food security, production, business, and community issues, among other topics. On Friday night, there will be a food policy networking event. Saturday features a fun and educational food festival highlighted by Alaska food vendors presenting taste-testing, food demonstrations, and hands-on interactive demonstrations on raising, harvesting, and preparing food. Saturday’s event is family friendly and includes a petting zoo in the afternoon.

“The goals of the conference and festival are to: (1) increase awareness of Alaska food issues among the general population; (2) provide training, resources, and networking opportunities to increase involvement in local food issues by community members and decision makers; and (3) increase connections and build community between the public, Alaska food businesses, NGOs, governmental entities, tribal entities, and others to support local economic development and innovative solutions,” AFPC Co-Chair Lorinda Lhotka said.

Registration is open now, and the cost is $130 for the full conference and festival (including Friday night’s social event) or $60 for the full conference and festival for speakers, volunteers and students. For those wanting to attend specific events, the cost is $105 for the food conference only on Friday, $25 for Friday night’s social event only, or $10 for Saturday’s food festival only (or $40 for a family of four or more). You can sign up and pre-pay for the conference using our online registration page, https://alaskafoodfestivalandconference.eventbrite.com.

For those traveling to Fairbanks for the event, Pike’s Waterfront Lodge has a special conference rate of $75 per night (Nov. 2-5, use event code AKFFC/1102) that must be booked by Thursday, Oct. 19. For lodging details or to make reservations, contact Pike’s Waterfront Lodge at http://www.pikeslodge.com, or call 877-744-2400 (reservations) or
907-456-4500.

For info and a copy of the agenda, go to the AFPC Council conference website at https://www.akfoodpolicycouncil.org/2017-conference/, or contact AFPC Co-Chair Lorinda Lhotka at lorinda.lhotka@alaska.gov, or Samantha Reynolds at 907-452-2185 or sreynolds@investfairbanks.com.

For information about being a vendor at the conference, go to https://www.akfoodpolicycouncil.org/2017-vendors. For information about sponsoring the conference and our sponsor tiers, go to https://www.akfoodpolicycouncil.org/2017-sponsors/.

• 2017 Alaska Food Festival and Conference draft agenda

Sitka Farmers Market ranked as top market in Alaska in annual Farmers Market Celebration

The results are in, and the Sitka Farmers Market ranks as the top market in Alaska and among the leaders nationally in the American Farmland Trust’s ninth annual Farmers Market Celebration.

This summer the Sitka Local Foods Network hosted seven markets, and one of our goals was to rebuild the market by increasing the number of vendors, launching a kid vendor program, and adding new Alaska Grown products to our farm stand. Nina Vizcarrondo was the market manager, and Charles Bingham was the assistant manager.

The Sitka Farmers Market ranked No. 1 in Alaska in all five categories — People’s Choice, Focus on Farmers, Healthy Food for All, Pillar of the Community, and Champion for the Environment. Sitka also ranked among the top 50 markets nationally in several categories, earning Best Of Class honors.

Nationally, the top three markets finished in the same 1-2-3 order in all five categories. The top market was Winter Gardens Farmers Market of Winter Gardens, Fla., followed by Charlottesville City Market of Charlottesville, Va., and Williamsburg Farmers Market of Williamsburg, Va.

Shoppers were encouraged to use Instagram and join the local food community in saving farmland with their forks, as part of AFT’s “#OnMyFork” social media campaign. Supporters are encouraged to post pictures or videos of their farmers market to Instagram using the hashtag #OnMyFork. We asked people who posted anything about the Sitka Farmers Market to please tag our Sitka Local Foods Network page on Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/SitkaLocalFoodsNetwork, tag our Sitka Farmers Market page on Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/SitkaFarmersMarket, and/or share it on our Twitter page, https://www.twitter.com/SitkaLocalFoods. Please use the hashtags #SitkaLocalFoodsNetwork and #SitkaFarmersMarket if you share a photo.

In past Farmers Market Celebrations, sponsored by the American Farmland Trust, the Sitka Farmers Market has been at or near the top among the Alaska rankings. In 2015, the Sitka Farmers Market was the top Alaska market in this contest. In 2016, the Sitka Farmers Market earned Best In Class honors in the contest after finishing second among Alaska markets and cracking the top 50 nationally in a couple of categories.