Local eating isn't easy

Fairbanks professor wants to improve Alaska food security

Posted: Friday, September 05, 2008

It was a dark and rainy summer. Southeast gardeners suffered.

Gardener Susanne Williams said a friend joked about looking for recipes for green raspberries. Williams picked zucchini the size of her finger, grew carrots one-third the size from past years. The peas melted in before they were ripe. Her lettuce and dill came out huge and leafy, at least.

It sure is far from the sunny Mat-Su Valley.

Five percent of the food Alaskans eat is grown in the state, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

That's just an estimate. Craig Gerlach, University of Alaska Fairbanks anthropology professor, thinks the real proportion is even smaller. Gerlach has devoted his career to improving food systems - that is, where our food comes from, what we're eating, and what it does to us or for us.

Gerlach is in town to give a lecture, "Coming to Terms with Northern Foods, Northern Futures," at the University of Alaska Southeast tonight.

In the Bush, where Gerlach does much of his research, diet is constrained. It's what you grow, hunt, catch, or buy at the village store.

The latter is the trouble. For much of it, "you're paying a lot of money for food that on balance is pretty low-quality," Gerlach said.

The problem just worsens as fuel prices rise.

"People in the villages are really concerned about food security," he said. "They're having some challenges getting out into the country to harvest enough food to last the family through the winter."

Meanwhile, diet-related health problems have surged in rural Alaska: type II diabetes, colorectal cancer.

The question, as Gerlach sees it: "How can we increase local food production?"

But eating locally has its own special vulnerability, as Southeast gardeners well know. If you live on your own carrots, and then one year your carrots don't grow? You're back to the grocery store.

You can't just stomp in and make people into farmers. The government tried that in the Yukon in the 1960s. Now there's farm equipment rotting in the fields outside Beaver.

As a researcher, Gerlach looks at and builds community farming initiatives, cooperatives, and other ways to diversify food systems that people are actually interested in.

When each food system has its own inherent vulnerability, variety is key.

"We're looking at trying to design a food system that's diverse," he said. "It's in the diversity that we'll find the stability."

Gerlach spent the last few days investigating Southeast's local food systems. For instance, the community garden.

A lot of people want to grow their own food here. There are merits - a healthier diet, paying less for food, supplementing the often less-than-crisp grocery-store produce. The plots at the Juneau Community Garden were all rented this year.

But in Juneau, sunny arable tracts are few and pricey. And for someone to supply restaurants or grocery stores, produce would need to be a lot more reliable than what most people can do here.

A walk through the community garden reveals many a plot forsaken this dank summer.

Williams says there is hope for the industrious.

"Yes, I'm disappointed that my carrots are not that big. But I'll have plenty to can, and I'll still have extra to give to the Food Bank," she said. "If we persevere, we are going to get crops."

It's been done successfully before, said Betsy Kunibe, anthropology student at the University of Alaska Southeast. Two hundred years ago, the Spaniards who visited Southeast saw Tlingit and Haida master gardens. Ships' logs described how barrels of potatoes were shipped from here to Hawaii.

Gerlach will present his research and various agricultural projects, and seek input from local eaters and growers, this evening at the University of Alaska Southeast's "Evening at Egan" lecture series.

• Contact reporter Kate Golden at 523-2276 or kate.golden@juneauempire.com.

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