Sitka Local Foods Network uses St. Peter’s Fellowship Farm and Sitka Farmers Market to improve food security in Sitka
During the stormy months of winter, most people in Sitka aren’t thinking about their gardens. But that’s when St. Peter’s Fellowship Farm Lead Gardener Laura Schmidt is trying to figure out which vegetables to plant in which garden bed, starting seeds, and (if the soil isn’t frozen) amending the soil with seaweed and other nutrients to get an early start on the garden.
As the lead gardener since 2011, a contract position with the Sitka Local Foods Network, Schmidt is responsible for growing most of the fresh, local vegetables sold during the Sitka Farmers Markets each summer. She oversees food production at the St. Peter’s Fellowship Farm communal garden, located behind St. Peter’s By The Sea Episcopal Church, and at an extension garden located at Pat Arvin’s house.
Schmidt and her volunteer gardeners have about 3,000 square feet in production. Last year they grew about 300 pounds of rhubarb and 100 pounds of kale. “That’s a lot of kale,” Schmidt said. Besides kale and rhubarb, they also grow garlic, onions, potatoes, kohlrabi, cabbage, broccoli, fava beans, spinach, carrots, beets, nasturtiums, zucchini, cucumbers, and more.
“It’s fun to have it all come together. It’s nice to see it turn into food,” Schmidt said. “It’s a fun puzzle because every year is different, and how do we make it more productive.”
Sitka residents will have a chance to celebrate their independence from store-bought and overly processed food at the first Sitka Farmers Market of the summer, which takes place from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday, July 4, at the Alaska Native Brotherhood Founders Hall. The other five markets will be on July 18, Aug. 1, Aug. 15, Aug. 29, and Sept. 12.
“It’s very important. People come for the produce. It’s the prime attraction,” Sitka Farmers Market Manager Debe Brincefield said. “We have jams and jellies, bread, fish, and arts and crafts, but people bring their produce bags and are happy to fill them.”
The Sitka Farmers Market and St. Peter’s Fellowship Farm are two of the main projects of the Sitka Local Foods Network, and both projects came out of the second Sitka Health Summit, which took place in April 2008. The first garden beds were built and planted at St. Peter’s Fellowship Farm by May 2008, and food grown at St. Peter’s was available for sale at the first Sitka Farmers Market in August 2008. Since then, both projects have been a growing concern.
These two projects came about because many in Sitka were concerned about food security, especially as the country entered a major recession in 2008. It’s estimated about 90-95 percent of the food eaten in Alaska is shipped here from the Lower 48 or foreign countries, and artificially cheap transportation made it easier for people to buy their food from the store than to grow or harvest it themselves, which was the norm in Sitka until the 1950s and 1960s. With so little food being grown locally, Sitka residents worried what might happen if fuel prices went up or if we had a natural disaster that destroyed our ports and/or airport.
There also were worries about how much longer residents could afford store-bought food, especially as Sitka food prices went up 43.6 percent from September 2003 to 2011, according to the Sitka Community Food Assessment Indicators Report (a 2012 Sitka Health Summit project). The report also noted that 1,410 Sitka residents participated in the food stamp program in 2013, about one-sixth of Sitka’s population of about 9,000. Sitka residents redeemed $1,645,702 in food stamp dollars in 2012, an increase of $201,000 from 2011.
The Sitka Farmers Market and St. Peter’s Fellowship Farm are two key elements for improving food security in Sitka, with education about gardening and food preservation being another key element.
“It helps people to connect the food to the market, and hopefully realize the Sitka Local Foods Network is the umbrella organization,” Sitka Local Foods Network Board President Lisa Sadleir-Hart said. “We knew if we had a market, we had to have food to sell. We have a lead gardener in Laura who has grown and expanded the St. Peter’s Fellowship Farm and our extension garden at Pat Arvin’s every year. And we have generous people who donate produce from their gardens for us to sell, such as Jud Kirkness, Linda Wilson and my family.”
To help families struggling with food security, the Sitka Farmers Market became the first farmers market in Southeast Alaska to accept SNAP (food stamps) and WIC nutrition benefits, including the Alaska Quest electronic benefits transfer cards used for SNAP. The Sitka Farmers Market also matches dollars spent on SNAP-approved foods (produce, fish, baked goods, barley products, etc.), which allows Alaska Quest card users to double their purchase by as much as $20 per person per market. That means a family of four with SNAP benefits can be matched up to $80. This year, the Sitka Farmers Market will partner with the SouthEast Alaska Regional Health Consortium (SEARHC) on a new program where SEARHC beneficiaries with chronic disease are prescribed vouchers for fruits and vegetables.
And the growing is spreading.
“As I was taking a walk around town the other day, I identified three new gardens,” Sadleir-Hart said. “They also have a new garden at the Pioneer Home where they’re growing food.”
For more information about the Sitka Local Foods Network, Sitka Farmers Market and St. Peter’s Fellowship Farm, go to http://www.sitkalocalfoodsnetwork.org/ or email firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn about being a vendor at the Sitka Farmers Market, contact Debe Brincefield at email@example.com or call 738-8683.
(Editor’s note: The story above appeared in the Weekender section of the July 2, 2015, edition of the Daily Sitka Sentinel. It was written by Sitka Local Foods Network board member/communications director Charles Bingham.)