How importing food seems slightly insane
The one citizen journalist and editorial staff, after a couple of beers, decided to attend a Town hall Meeting held by the the Alaska Food Policy Council on February 2nd, 2014. Apart from sounding like a gathering to modify junior high cafeteria food trowing policies, the meeting brought up pressing questions and issues we as Alaskans should take a bit more serious – like $5.75 billion dollars Natural Gas pipeline serious.
While the number is not solid, it is pretty safe to assume that Alaska imports around 95% of its food from outside its glorious boarders. That amounts to anywhere between $150 to $180 billion dollars being spent on transportation and distant agricultural production and processing for the food that finds its way to our tables. Not to mention a few hundred million on Pepsi and Doritos – absolutely no facts to back up this claim, we just made it up. Though my brothers can really down some Pepsi.
Let me just ask a stupid question. If somehow, ridiculously, Alaska lost its life line via airplanes and marine cargo lines, could we survive on about 5% of locally produced food? Perhaps rural areas would fare much better, relying heavily on subsistence already, but I wonder would they miss their flour? Their milk? Their Washington eggs? Not to mention their Pepsi.
Here at AKCenozo, we’re not about lighting people’s genitals on fire while screaming that the sky is falling. And, that’s not what we are going to do now. But it seems a pretty wild thought, doesn’t it? To think that human beings have been kicking around here on earth for awhile now and for much of its history has had some sort of connection, much of it intimate, to the very life blood of its existence – food. Yet, here we find ourselves, or perhaps largely myself, not knowing exactly how most of this stuff that got into my fridge was grown and produced – even, really, where its from.
Now, I grew up in rural Alaska. I picked berries and went fishing. I’ve eaten my seal stew and fish head soup and if the world went to hell in a hand basket I could probably get my shit together and do what’s needed to survive for my family – not without, most likely, many people laughing hysterically at my efforts of trying to re-learn things that were not really specifically taught to me.
But, that’s not the point. We have a systemic problem that’s been created by larger economic forces that we must, as individual Alaskans and as a community, come to terms with and address.
Promoting Local Green Thumbs
When I was a young child, my mother worked on a tender out of Chignik, Alaska. I don’t remember much, but one foggy memory is staring out of cabin windows watching walls of water crashing across the bow and thudding against the windows.
My mother recounts that it was a terrifying, I recall some sort of ignorant giddiness. The boat rolled and rocked and the water splashed in loud wild slaps, throwing foam and water in every direction. I’d probably shit myself if I went through the same thing today – I’m not Deadliest Catch material, we’ll say.
As I sat in that Alaskan Food Policy Council Town hall meeting, I realized, while I may have poorly learned how to tie knots, fish and gather berries and plants, as well as taken stints as a commercial and charter fisherman in my short adult life, picking up tidbits here and there, no one ever taught me about green thumbs.
What I mean is, our State is big on fish and oil. Growing up, I think every kid of my generation (and probably today) understood that being a fisherman or an oil field worker, a state or federal worker, were possibilities. But, a farmer? Hell no, and probably for a multitude of good reasons.
Alaska is notorious for its short growing seasons, poor soils in many regions, harsh conditions and a whole host of other reasons that agriculture just seems like drudgery – avoiding entirely other difficulties like realty access to land, lack of governmental inducements and the rural nature of our state.
The point is that the idea of locals producing food for Alaskan’s has not and is not a promoted aspect of our Alaskan economy – particularly agriculture. Sure, we export salmon all over the world. According to the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, Alaska exported 79% of its salmon to China, Japan and Europe. And, that’s great.
Many Alaskans have access to gathering their own salmon, also great, but how much effort is made towards getting Alaskan salmon affordably to Alaskan’s themselves in urban areas of our state?
Looking beyond even salmon, what are we doing as Alaskans to promote, develop and support agricultural and subsistence ventures in the state? There are, of course, some, but it seems like we could be doing so much more.
Challenging the Federal Man
Among the vast array of excellent local solutions that were brought up during the town hall meetings for Juneau and Alaska at large, one particular thought that crossed my mind was the role that our centralized (and distant) federal regulations play in limiting the flexibility of getting local foods into our schools, our restaurants and our stores. Or, at the very least play into discouraging locally sourced food production and consumption.
That doesn’t mean that the USDA or any number of the agencies out there are terrible apparatuses destroying American ingenuity, but it does seem that we could benefit from a more flexible and mobile approach towards giving local schools, communities and business access to the food sources already available to them.
Figuring out ways to process caribou or moose meat that can be brought in for school lunches could be simplified in a way that meets health and quality standards but also looks towards more local food sources – rather than importing Salisbury steaks form American Foods, Inc.
Making more responsive and flexible regulations in an effort to locally source foods might also have the side benefits of creating new markets and businesses for local hunters, wild foraging gatherers and fisherman alike.
I know that there are folks and organizations out there already doing good work towards boosting Alaska’s locally sourced foods – all of their work and activities should be praised and more widely highlighted by our media, schools and businesses. On the wide scope, however, it seems that cumbersome regulations (which I know relatively little about) play a role in discouraging modifications to our currently unsustainable food system model.
Now, if you will excuse me. I’ve got a cold Pepsi and bag of Doritos waiting.