In 1943, Eleanor Roosevelt planted a victory garden at the White House, bringing back an idea first pursued during World War I. She encouraged citizens around the country to plant their own victory gardens, partly to help reduce the country's food needs during wartime, and also as a way to boost morale. She was successful: At their peak, victory gardens supplied more than 40 percent of the country's produce.
This past spring, Michelle Obama planted the first White House garden since Roosevelt's, in an action that was both an echo of the past and thoroughly modern. Obama's garden has tapped into a growing movement that has been steadily gaining ground. It embraces the idea of eating more simple, nutritious, locally-based foods and hearkens back to a time when food production was more regionally based, before consumer demand for unlimited food options was met by the industrial marketplace.
Eating food grown locally is both environmentally responsible and personally healthy, say advocates such as Michael Pollan, author of the "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and Barbara Kingsolver, author of "Animal, Vegetable, Mineral." It's also a good way to engage with the community, learn about the complexities of food production and build a more resilient system. And though there is no food shortage in America today, the timing dovetails with a larger do-it-yourself mindset spurred by an ailing economy.
Farmers markets provide one of the easiest ways to promote eating locally, and have sprung up in increasing numbers across the country. According to the USDA, there are more than 4,800 markets in the country, up from 2,863 in 2000 and 1,755 in 1994.
In Alaska, the number also has been rising. Patricia O'Neil, natural resource specialist with the Division of Agriculture, has been involved with farmers markets here for th past two years.
"Two years ago, when I started with the division, there were 16 markets, and now I believe there are 29," O'Neil said. "I think the awareness of eating local ... is growing on all levels."
Juneau's garden farmers
Juneau's second farmers market will be held this Saturday at the Juneau Arts & Culture Center. A wide range of vendors, both commercial and individual, will sell their wares, offering local options from Pearl of Alaska's oysters to Kristin Garot's preserves. In addition, a number of booths will be hawking information rather than products. A series of 30-minute presentations also will run throughout the day, covering topics such as rain-gutter gardening and gathering seaweed.
At this stage, Juneau's market, organized by the Juneau Commission on Sustainability, is geared toward disseminating information as much as showcasing local products.
"What we found last year is that people are still in the how-to mode because for the last couple generations we haven't had to gather our food," said Catherine Fritz, member of the commission and a market organizer.
Fritz said that for her, the eat-locally movement is a good way to gain understanding of where we live and find out about the rich resources that we have access to, as well as to promote self-reliance.
"There's all kinds of reasons to think about it, learn about it and play with it," she said.
Though there are challenges to growing things in such a wet climate, Alaska is blessed with naturally nutrient- rich foods, Fritz said, such as berries and salmon.
Darren Snyder, land resources agent with University of Alaska's cooperative extension program, said that the local food options for Juneau are more abundant than they seem.
"You can grow so many things here, and some of them right out in the open," Snyder said.
Rhubarb, berries and potatoes are obvious candidates for the beginner, as well as other root crops such as carrots and turnips. In the brassica family there's cauliflower, broccoli, kale and kohl rabi. A bit more tempermental are summer squash and zucchini.
Other items, like apples, do grow well here, but they're not very dependable and are a bit more complex.
"Apples are not really reliable producers in this environment," Snyder said.
Reliability becomes especially important when a grower is interested in producing enough to sell. And for those who move in that direction, a new entity, Alaska Grown, has been created to offer assistance.
O'Neil said that the Division of Agriculture used to handle such marketing issues, and statewide farmers markets in general, but when they discovered that, as a state body, they were unable to tap into abundant federal funds, a separate entity was created, Alaska Grown. Alaska Grown is a program geared toward those growing their produce for commercial, wholesale or retail markets. Certification works much like the "Made in Alaska" program, with stickers or other signs to indicate a product has met certain criteria. Those interested must complete a one-page application.
"It's a very simple, personal program," O'Neil said.
Jeff Warner, state director of the Alaska Association of the Future Farmers of America, who works on the Alaska Grown program, said that he'd like to see the eat local idea develop into a long-lasting philosophy.
"Eat local is wonderful and great, but there's also a need for people to develop a habit for eating local and learning how to process and use locally grown products," he said.
Until garden farms become more fully developed here in Juneau, those interested in eating locally may have to expand their parameters to include eating regionally. In that vein, Full Circle Farms, based in Carnation, Wash., offers Juneau residents weekly or bimonthly boxes of produce, much of which is grown on site at the farm and 85 to 95 percent of which comes from Washington state.
Bob McCarny, Full Circle Farm's regional manager in Alaska, said that the box program serves between 350 and 450 residents in the Juneau area. Full Circle also has taken off in the Bush, with more than 100 drop locations across the state.
"It's the next best thing to locally grown," he said, adding that the program has ushered in a lifestyle change for many families.
Members have the opportunity to substitute out produce they don't think they'll like (or know how to cook), making it possible for them to use as much local produce as they can. For example, when local greens are in season, buyers can alter their box contents to include mostly fruit.
"We fully encourage local buying habits in season," McCarny said.
Rainbow Foods, which offers a wide range of organic produce, would welcome the chance to sell local produce, said owner David Ottoson.
"We'd love to have more local produce but there are a lot of challenges in growing things in this climate," Ottoson said.
He also said that in spite of the competition Full Circle presents, he sees it as a positive thing, in that it has exposed people to organic produce.
"My personal take is that a rising tide lifts all ships. They're promoting good, healthy food and making it available to us, and I personally appreciate that."
Food miles vs. food choice
Though Juneau residents have to accept a diet that includes mostly shipped-in food, a new study suggests that the concept of "food miles" as an indicator of the environmental impact of a product is not as important as it has been touted to be. More important than how far the food has traveled, according to a often-cited 2008 study by Carnegie Mellon scientists, is how it was produced.
According to the study, resource intensity is key. Certain foods take far more resources to produce than others. Meat and cheese, for example, are very resource intensive. In fact, substituting fish or chicken for red meat just once a week can eliminate as much greenhouse gas as buying all-local, according to the study.
That's good news for Juneau. We may not have an abundance of local food choices, but fish is certainly one of them.