• 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