My Turn: Alaska disaster planning needs to focus on food

Posted: Wednesday, October 19, 2005

You need only to go to a grocery store on a weekday afternoon to realize that many Alaskans are not prepared for a disaster like last December's tsunami, Hurricane Katrina or the recent earthquake in Pakistan. Shoppers, eager to return home with the evening meal, stand in long lines at the checkout stand. "I don't have time to cook," a fellow "line place-holder" told me one day as he hosted microwaveable meals onto the rotating carousel.

Lack of time isn't the problem; lack of food is. To everyone living in Alaska, ask yourself this question: How many days worth of food and water do you have in your cupboards right now? One day, maybe two?

In the national debate Katrina has triggered over emergency preparedness and as communities recheck disaster responses, one element should not be overlooked: If you want to be prepared for a catastrophic event, you should be thinking seven days, not just three. That's seven days worth of food, water, shelter and other supplies.

To be ready at a moment's notice, we need to act now and become more prepared and less dependent on imported food. (The estimated distance a conventional head of lettuce travels from farm to market is 2,500 miles.) On a local level, more food should be stockpiled and grown locally in home gardens, open fields and greenhouses. On a state level, these efforts should not only should be encouraged, but the state of Alaska should develop and implement a sustainable food policy.

To begin the process, we can study policies already in place. Finland, for example, resembles the shape and size of California, and is situated between the parallels of latitude 60 and 70 degrees North. One third of the country lies within the Arctic Circle. It is the northernmost country in the world to have an active commercial horticulture industry. The winters are cold and the average growing season spans 110 to 145 days. There are around 8,000 horticultural businesses in Finland, most of which are family owned. An impressive 60 percent of the value of horticultural production is grown in greenhouses, while 40 percent is grown in open fields. Closer to home, the village of Chickaloon eased dependence on imported foods by extending the growing season through a four-season greenhouse and community garden.

In a recent article, science writer Ned Rozell talks about Charles C. Georgeson, the man who, 100 years ago, helped establish agricultural stations in the far north. Through Georgeson's efforts, it was discovered that crops could indeed survive, some better than others.

Today, the Fairbanks and Matanuska stations continue to study species of plants and animals capable of adapting to our extreme climate. Fast-forwarding to the present, Rozell adds an insightful twist. "In this world of highways and frequent flights from the lower 48, Alaska-grown crops and animals account for only about 10 percent of what Alaskans consume. But the potential for more is here. Someday it may not be cheaper to import foods from outside Alaska."

If an earthquake, tsunami, flood or other disaster struck your community, where would you go for food? The grocery store?

It's food for thought.

• Kodiak Island resident Marion Owen is a writer, radio producer, master gardener and instructor at Kodiak College.

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