FAIRBANKS — Happy Alaska Agriculture Day. With green-up fast approaching, Fairbanksans have been buzzing away starting seeds and planning garden plots. One group of people who are especially happy to see the thaw of snow are our local farmers! These friends and neighbors work with the midnight sun, day and “night” to provide an essential service to us all: growing food locally. Our local farmers are a major key to alleviating Alaska’s unique issue of food insecurity.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food security as “access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life.” Too many Alaskans do not have access to healthy food for a number of reasons, including lack of transportation, physical location, poverty and lack of access to balanced meals. When Alaskans think about food insecurity, we think about the transportation side of food insecurity. Fairbanks is food insecure due to the lack of supply lines. Too often, we see thinned grocery stores due to canceled or delayed barge deliveries. If a major disaster were to strike Anchorage, it would leave Fairbanksans scrambling to find food for our tables.
When people lack enough money to acquire wholesome food, food insecurity becomes a deeply personal issue. About 12,320 Fairbanks North Star Borough Residents are food insecure based on the 2016 “Map the Meal Gap” statistics by Feeding America. Furthermore, according to Alaska Food Coalition, 20 percent of Alaskan children do not know where their next meal is coming from. Government programs such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program help people meet ends to feed their families. While SNAP helps folks afford food, the benefits are not enough for most.
Based on USDA fiscal 2018 SNAP cost-of-living-adjustments, the most an individual can get in a month here in Fairbanks is $230. While the average cost for a meal here is $3.67 based on 2015 Map the Meal Gap. That $3.67 over the course of 31 days is $341.31. This means that SNAP only covers 67 percent of what is needed for someone in Fairbanks to have adequate access to a decent meal. SNAP has been in the news lately as the controversy of eligibility roars. Eligibility requirements are especially harmful for Alaska as unemployment is so high and many people are seasonal workers. Some villages suffer unemployment rates as high as 66 percent. If having a job is a requirement to receive SNAP, many people could go hungry, which lowers economic productivity and overall health for Alaska.
Lastly, a lack of food education leads to food insecurity as well. If someone’s pantry is only filled with grains and rice, with no access to any other food, that person is considered food insecure. With better educational efforts, we can help people make smarter, healthier decisions for their bodies so that they may be nourished and properly fed.
Our local farmers are an unseen asset in fighting our state’s food insecurity. Farmers truly understand the importance of growing and the real fight against food insecurity in the Interior. They grow nutritious, whole food from March to September, which can be frozen and processed for storage over the winter. Some farmers in the area are dedicated to the monetary side of food insecurity. For instance, Christie Shell at Calypso Farms started the Southside Community Farmer’s Market with the intention of providing better access to locally grown produce for low-income families. This market not only accepts SNAP, but with a generous grant from the USDA, doubles SNAP benefits. Farmers also understand that sometimes the easiest, best produce items to grow are not necessarily the ones everyone knows how to cook. To combat this, the Southside Community Farmer’s Market, hosts a summer program called “Chefs at the Market,” which recruits local chefs to come and teach about cooking with specific vegetables, such as kale and rutabagas.
So, this summer, when you are grocery shopping for you and your family, I urge you to buy local as much as possible. Just look for the Golden Heart Grown symbol at your local restaurants and stores and, of course, your local farmers market. When you do, you help alleviate food insecurity and strengthen our community’s economic atmosphere. Not only do you benefit your community, but you are also buying the freshest, tastiest produce in the Interior.
Sydney Vaught is an AmeriCorps Vista volunteer at Breadline Inc.