Imagine another busy Juneau day. As usual, there are a million things to do: Work, school, meetings, errands and maybe exercise. No matter how many things are on the to-do lists, at some point in the day everyone has to eat. The choice of what to eat is at the focus of a local organization called Slow Food Southeast Alaska.
“Eating is perhaps one of the daily acts that we most take for granted in today’s society,” said Elizabeth Dubovsky, the organization’s president. “Due to our busy schedules and non-stop lifestyles, we spend very little time thinking about where our food comes from, who produced it or how it was produced.”
Many food products are available for quick sustenance: Instant noodles, energy drinks, food bars, microwaveable meals and sometimes fast food. While these “fast foods” are convenient in the short term, too much can have negative health effects. The current agricultural system also relies heavily on pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers that harm the environment where the food is produced, and also the workers who produce and process these foods.
In Alaska, the majority of the food we consume is produced and shipped from the Lower 48 or abroad, and it takes the place of healthy, locally-produced goods that could provide economic opportunities for entrepreneurs in our own communities.
“In other words,” explained Dubovsky, “we are trading in a lot when we grab the easiest and fastest food option.”
A growing number of Americans are becoming aware of how food is connected to many aspects of life, including culture, politics, agriculture and the environment.
Fortunately, Alaska is a place that nurtures local food traditions of people from many different cultural backgrounds. For Alaska Natives, traditional wild-harvested foods continue to be an important way of celebrating cultural values and sharing these values with future generations. Homesteaders and farming practices brought by people from the Lower 48 and other countries likewise offer important lessons on sustainability and self-reliance.
Dubovsky said her organization is looking to draw more public attention and awareness to local food issues opportunities. “By doing so, we can hopefully strengthen local accessibility to healthy, delicious food and support our local economy and food-related businesses in the process,” she says.
The dramatic growth in popularity of fast foods inspired the birth of the Slow Food movement in the 1980s. Carlo Petrini, the movement’s founder, became concerned with the disappearance of local food traditions and the surge in fast foods options in his native Italy. He began mobilizing consumers, farmers, artisan food producers, and other stakeholders to support and protect unique Italian foods and cultures from being replaced by an increasingly globalized and industrialized food system. The movement grew as leaders in other regions and countries began to organize to promote the local food traditions and the people who protect them.
Today, Slow Food International is a global, grassroots organization with thousands of members in 150 countries around the world who focus their efforts on promoting the vision of “a world in which all people can access and enjoy food that is good for them, good for those who grow it and good for the planet.” This vision is supported by the three principles of good, clean, and fair food. Good food is defined as “a fresh and flavorsome seasonal diet that satisfies the senses and is part of our local culture.” Clean food means “food production and consumption that does not harm the environment, animal welfare or our health.” Fair food refers to “accessible prices for consumers and fair conditions and pay for small-scale producers.
Although Slow Food is an international movement, each local chapter around the world can tailor its activities according to the community’s needs, priorities, and resources. In the case of Southeast Alaska, the local Slow Food chapter is a member of Slow Food USA, which works nationwide toward “creating changes in the nation’s food system by reconnecting Americans with the people, traditions, plants, animals, soils, and waters that produce food.”
Community projects in the works include supporting new community gardens, establishing Slow Food teaching plots at these gardens, and setting up a network of DEC-certified community kitchens and food instructors. The group also participates in other efforts to increase local accessibility to Southeast Alaska foods such as the summer farmer’s markets, the annual food festival and a community supported fishery.
In the past, meetings have included workshops on making jerky, mushroom foraging and canning jams and jellies. This year, the group plans to hold quarterly potluck meetings in celebration of each of the four seasons. The meetings will offer educational workshops about food production, preparation, and preservation.
The next Slow Food Southeast Alaska event is a winter potluck and winter food workshops, which will be held Thursday at the University of Alaska Southeast Bill Ray Center. The potluck starts at 6 p.m. with workshops running from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.
Workshops will include making bread from wild sourdough, new ways of preparing old root vegetables, brewing beer and raising your own microgreens. Attendees are invited to bring a dish to share with others, although this is certainly not required.
As the Southeast Alaska chapter of Slow Food grows, the energy and expertise of those involved will determine the kinds of projects that the chapter pursues. The group hopes to connect people with different food backgrounds and interests, and ultimately empower families and individuals of all economic backgrounds to be leaders and active participants in creating a sustainable local food system. Local experts can share what they know, and everyone has an opportunity to learn something new. Cooking, foraging, fishing, hunting and gathering as well as cultivating gardens and reviving small-scale livestock operations are all ways to be more connected to the land, the sea and to each other.
In today’s globalized, technologically-advanced world, life seems to move so quickly that it is important to remember to slow down and enjoy it. A seemingly mundane act, such as eating, can become extraordinary. Slow Food Southeast Alaska invites the community to eat slow and celebrate all that is good, clean, and fair.
For more information, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or find their group on Facebook.
• Nu is a freelance writer in Juneau. She can be contacted at email@example.com.