Since January 2014, representatives of the Alaska Food Policy Council have been crisscrossing the state, getting a taste of local foods, food issues, and food successes.
The first meeting was held in 2014 in Nome, followed by Juneau, Fairbanks, Bethel, and Palmer, then Homer and Anchorage this year.
The events have attracted Alaskans from all walks of life.
“Well I mean food affects everyone every day. So I think definitely from the farmer working in his fields that day or her fields that day to the mom who wants to be able to feed her kids healthy food,” says Chelsea Ward-Waller, a project manager with Denali Daniels & Associates contracted with the council to lead the town hall meetings and process the feedback.
She says there are a few issues of concern to the entire state because of how remote it is, like general food security in case of emergency. But the regional differences have been significant, too.
“For example, Nome has some interesting issues with their reindeer herders that they’re trying to get some legislation, regulations changed so that they can have some better, easier processing within the state and within the local community. And then Bethel of course really has a champion, Tim Meyer, there, but the rest of the community really struggles and so that’s an interesting dichotomy,” says Ward-Waller. “And then Fairbanks is really proud like Homer of all the local farmers.”
Kyra Wagner is one of those proud people, but she says there’s still lots to be done. She works with the Homer Farmers’ Market and the Sustainable Homer initiative. She came out to share her interest in seeing locally-grown food in school lunches as well as affordable or home-grown food for low income families.
“The more people we can have growing food is going to make us more secure as a community as far as food security but also, in people’s pocketbooks it’s much more affordable and it’s healthier. So, it’s the best of both worlds,” says Wagner.
The Kenai Peninsula, like the Mat-Su region, is known for its fertile land and strong independent agriculture businesses. But some of its communities, like Homer, are also heavily dependent on the maritime industry.
That’s where this meeting took a bit of a turn from some of the others. Emma and Claire Laukitis, also known as theSalmon Sisters, are lifelong fishermen who also own their own fishing-themed clothing line.
“It’s a gem of a protein and a food source and it’s the healthiest thing that you can be eating,” says Emma. “So, to have that at your doorstep and not utilize it is a silly thing, I think.”
They are vocal advocates for sustainable and traceable seafood sourcing and they’ve come to the meeting to make sure fishing is part of the food conversation.
“I mean you’re supporting your local economy. I don’t understand why you would transport subsidized product all the way from the Midwest when you have a bay full of fish that you can start a fish to school or farm to school program that you travel two miles from the base of the spit to Homer High,” says Claire.
Partnerships between agribusiness and the seafood industry in Alaska are just logical, says Kelly Harrell. She works for the Alaska Marine Conservation Council which is co-hosting this meeting.
“If we’re talking about protecting food security, you know it’s salmon with a lot of Alaskans. That’s one of our major food sources there. So, we definitely recognize the need for more fisheries- and seafood-minded folks to be engaged with the Food Policy Council and make sure the discussion wasn’t just about agriculture but it was about seafood and how to get more local seafood into schools and into the hands of consumers,” says Harrell.
She’s also a governing board member for the food council and says the next step is collating all the research and feedback from the communities. Then, she says the council will likely reach out to its various member organizations to prioritize possible projects or focus areas.
“We have a common interest in working to overcome and building a better food system, so I think the sky’s the limit and a lot of collaboration to be had in the future,” says Harrell.
And the ultimate goal is two-sided. To ensure all Alaskans have access to affordable, healthy, sustainable foods. And, to engage those same Alaskans so they can help make the decisions that could affect their food system far into the future.