House-backed measure pushes Alaska-grown food

ldemer@adn.comMarch 11, 2013 

JUNEAU -- A resolution urging the Parnell administration to push locally grown and harvested food cleared the state House Monday with no opposition, while its Senate companion sailed through its first hearing.

The resolution is a mere suggestion. It doesn't carry the same power as a new law. It doesn't authorize any new state spending. It sets no deadlines. It doesn't even set a goal for the desired amount of local food consumption by Alaskans.

Just about everyone still seems to think the House and Senate concurrent resolutions 1 are a great idea anyway.

"I'm not a big government guy," Sen. Click Bishop, R-Fairbanks, said Monday afternoon after the Senate version, which he is sponsoring, passed out of the Resources Committee.

The idea is to encourage a more secure food supply and better nutrition along with boosting the agricultural arm of Alaska's economy, said the prime sponsor in the House, Rep. Bill Stoltze, a Republican from Chugiak whose district includes Mat-Su farm country.

"A long time ago, probably a little before I was born, we were producing over half of our food sources. Some areas of the state, it was 100 percent," Stoltze said on the floor.

Now maybe 5 percent of what Alaskans consume is local: potatoes and carrots, salmon fillets and reindeer sausage, organic eggs and local cheese. The resolution says that Alaskans spent $1.5 billion a year on food as of 2007; the Alaska Farm Bureau says the real figure now may be double that.

Stoltze was the only representative to speak for the resolution Monday on the House floor, where it was dispensed with in about five minutes. But it's clearly popular. The House version has 26 co-sponsors and passed 33-0, with seven lawmakers excused.

Gov. Sean Parnell supports the resolution, his spokeswoman, Sharon Leighow, said Monday.

The resolution encourages the governor to create a "state food resource development working group" that would bring together eight different state agencies and the University of Alaska to build a "strong and sustainable healthy food system."

Fairbanks Rep. Steve Thompson, another Republican, in 2011 backed a bill to create a Department of Agriculture, which existed back in territorial days and would have been a step beyond what Stoltze and Bishop are proposing.

The Alaska Farm Bureau, an advocacy organization made up mainly of farmers, pushed for an agriculture department, arguing that their issues get overshadowed by oil and gas in the Department of Natural Resources, which has an agriculture division.

"A resolution by itself wouldn't do a whole lot," said Bryce Wrigley, president of the Alaska Farm Bureau and a Delta Junction family farmer who grows barley, wheat and peas on 1,700 acres.

But if the governor pushes agencies, including the departments of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation, to come up with a vision for local food, the state's food supply chain could improve, Wrigley said in an interview.

The farm bureau is backing the resolution, as are the Department of Natural

Resources, the United Way of Anchorage, the Cooperative Extension Service, the Alaska School Nutrition Association, the Food Bank of Alaska, Catholic Social Services, the Mat-Su Borough, and the independent Alaska Food Policy Council, among other groups.

The state now is vulnerable, with maybe three days to a week of fresh food on the shelves at any time, Wrigley said.

"Just last year, we had a road washout down in the Yukon Territory, and for four days we weren't able to get food up the highway," Wrigley said.

While much food arrives on container ships, some fresh foods are trucked and shelves were picked clean, Bishop said.

Ed Fogels, deputy natural resources commissioner, told the Senate Resources Committee that some departments already are working well together, like in trying to control the spread of invasive weeds, but others could do better.

Some existing laws just need to be better enforced, said Darren Snyder, a University of Alaska Fairbanks cooperative extensive agent and member of the Alaska Food Policy Council board. The state already has a statute that gives local food sources a bidding edge in state procurement, he noted.

Sen. Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage, said at the Senate hearing Monday just setting big goals can change things, as the state already is doing in encouraging renewable and efficient energy sources.

Stoltze mentioned on the floor that carrots are "available everyday in my office, fresh cut from VanderWeele Farms in Palmer." He said later that he brought 200 pounds of carrots to Juneau. He recently gave 10 pounds to the governor, hoping Parnell will promote them at an official dinner.

 

 

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