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My Turn: Food security does not come from the store

Posted: November 6, 2012 - 12:00am

In a press release dated Dec. 15, 2011, Gov. Sean Parnell briefly mentioned food security. In it, the Governor said, “Every able Alaska family also needs to be ready for natural disasters with seven days of safe drinking water and food supplies. If we have a major earthquake here, for example, or if one occurred in the Seattle area, Alaska’s supply chain could easily take seven days to re-establish. In the meantime, grocery store shelves would be empty and we’d be on our own.” He went on to reference two hypothetical warehouses stocked with canned goods to supply up to 40,000 Alaskans for one week.

Sure, I agree that a warehouse with canned provisions could serve an important role in food security, and I thank the governor for thinking ahead. However, relying on a couple warehouses stocked with canned goods seems to miss the mark on what food security really means.

In the words of Virginia farmer Joel Salatin, “Food security is not in the supermarket. It’s not in the government. It’s not at the emergency services division.”

In Alaska, we have an increasingly rare opportunity to maintain our self-reliance. To continue to pass on to future generations our skills and competencies to feed ourselves. To paraphrase a brilliant book created from Tlingit knowledge and produced by the Forest Service: our food is our way of life. Across the state, five species of salmon spawn annually in huge numbers, filling our freezers. Halibut, rockfish, cod, and crab are just off our shores. Berries carpet hillsides every summer; grouse find their way to our dinner tables. And every fall, many of us head into hills for our blacktail, caribou, moose, or if you’re both lucky and hardy, bison. Which is why I’m encouraged to read of continued hunter’s safety courses offered in the Juneau School District. Just as importantly, I’m encouraged by the growing garden movement in Alaska.

I’d like to share one small example of what food security in action can look like on the ground. This past year, the Juneau Alaska Youth for Environmental Action (JAYEA), a few dedicated Harborview Elementary parents and staff, and I got together to develop a school vegetable garden. With a few winter meetings and phone calls, we organized lumber, soil, and seed for the Harborview garden. The JAYEA students constructed five raised bed gardens using wood donated from Icy Straits Lumber in their wood shop at JDHS. I organized a couple volunteer work parties to level the garden site and set the beds in place, and Harborview parents and staff organized student-led events to move soil into the beds, plant potatoes in the spring, and harvest them in the fall.

The result? In one summer, three of the raised bed gardens produced over 1,300 potatoes. A fourth bed sprouted carrots, kale, lettuce, and broccoli for months. Will this garden feed the entire city? Of course not. But it can play its role as one of dozens of food-producing plots in town to supplement the wild foods we bring home.

There are several other garden projects around town growing everything from garlic and onions to leafy greens and squash to berries and tomatoes, all of which are producing healthy, reliable food every year. There could be more.

So what’s the take home? The take home is twofold. One: growing vegetable gardens and storing wild fish and game in the freezer is not necessarily an absolute replacement of store-bought food, but it is a reliable and healthy supplement that helps us save money, gets us outside, and requires that we treat the forests and streams near our homes with utmost respect. Two: food security does not come in a store, nor an emergency warehouse. The more we remember what it means to be self-reliant, the more resilient our communities will be. In addition to our robust and productive wild food sources that we must protect as sacred — not just as conservationists, but also as consumers of food — we should look seriously into more vegetable gardens, neighborhood-scale hoop houses and greenhouses, and families growing and storing food at home. We in Alaska have an incredible opportunity to remain self-reliant. Will we?

• Hafey grew up in a hunting family. He studied political science with an emphasis on agriculture at Creighton University, and he works for the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council in Juneau.

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