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My Turn: Food for Thought: Are we really 'food secure?'

It's important to learn where your food comes from, how it gets here and how much is in town

Posted: April 20, 2011 - 8:19pm

Let’s start with a few questions.

Who likes to eat food, each and every day?

Did you notice bare produce shelves a few weeks ago? Have you heard about the killing frosts which devastated this season’s fruit and vegetable production in Mexico and the Southern U.S.?

How does the food we buy get here? How reliable is the production of our food?

How much is here, now in your town?

Unless you just happened to walk into Fred Meyer or Costco and saw the empty shelves a few weeks ago with signs stating various causes, ranging from “local weather” to “conditions in our producers region”, you might not have even noticed.

As someone who did notice and does like to eat every day, I decided to pursue these questions because I want to be sure that I, my family and friends and everyone, in all of our communities (you!) always have enough to eat. What I want for all of us is to be “food secure.”

When studying our food system, I like to trace backwards how food gets into my mouth, truly a journey with many steps simplified as; heat to cook it, a car to get it home, the retailer to store it and sell it (and money to buy it!), many shippers and distributors along the route to the store (by land and either air or sea), processors (think Håagen-Dazs) and finally, all the way back to the producers (growers). There are many ways to increase our own food supply through gardening, gathering, fishing and hunting, but even our local harvest greatly relies on fuel energy (petroleum) which goes through just as elaborate a supply chain as our food.

Good news: Our food system works. That is why each of us ate today. The problem is that our food system is vulnerable, every step of the way. Since Alaska imports more than 95 percent of our food, our supply can be severely threatened by extreme weather or man-caused events both far and near. We are completely dependent on others to bring us our food or the fuel we’ll use to get it. And we know the system isn’t always reliable — planes don’t always fly and boats don’t always come in.

There is no formula for determining what type, size and combination of events will cause disruptions, but if anyone thinks we are poised for a bailout whenever we are in need, I ask you to think back to Hurricane Katrina and see that — even in the best of weather and physically accessible conditions — emergency relief was very slow and too late for many.

I personally work with every group I have been able to contact on the subject of emergency food preparedness in Alaska and find few are even looking at the topic.

The real good news is that we can do many things to improve our food security and strengthen our food system. For an immediate emergency (evacuation), prepare ”to go” bags (at home and in vehicle). For short- to mid-term shortages (days to weeks), prepare and store personal food supplies including special dietary needs for infants and elders. This requires planning, money for the food/supplies, space, management/rotation and means to prepare the stored foods. Longer-term preparation means more extensive storage amounts and methods. Community level planning is important too. We need to plan and employ food storage and distribution systems for those in need during catastrophic emergencies. We can also reduce our vulnerability to food chain emergencies with increased local food cultivation and regular consumption and (electricity-free) storage of local, sustainably harvested natural resources such as fish, deer, seaweed, etc.

Each of these solutions helps to strengthen our food system and simultaneously support a more robust local economy with more dollars and resources circulating within our communities. We each need to identify food security as a real priority and take action.

Call the Cooperative Extension Service, 796-6221, if you want help or if you want to help others with Food Security issues on behalf of yourself, your families or your community.

• Snyder is an assistant professor and agent with the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service. He serves the Southeast Alaska region in the areas of agriculture and horticulture, 4-H youth development, food security and community resiliency.

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