Film festival aims to raise awareness of what we put in our mouths

Mike Dunham
Produce, meals and snacks await visitors to the Farmers' Market on Wednesday afternoon, July 10, 2013 at Northway Mall.
Erik Hill
Organic carrots await purchase at the Farmers' Market on Wednesday afternoon, July 10, 2013 at Northway Mall.
Erik Hill
A Colony barn and silo at Tiny Moose Farm in Palmer are dwarfed by Pioneer Peak on Thursday, April 18, 2013.
Bill Roth
Catharine Malinowski purchases zucchini grown at the Dinkel Farm near Wasilla from a booth at the Anchorage Market and Festival on Sunday, Sept. 2, 2012. The outdoor market in downtown Anchorage is winding down for the season and will be open one more weekend ending on Sunday, Sept. 9.
Bill Roth
Brian Olson talks about the haskap berry bushes he is cultivating for commercial use on his farm near Kenai, Alaska.
M. Scott Moon

We'll take a pause from reviewing restaurant food -- almost all of which gets shipped up from somewhere else -- to note events this week that emphasize food from around here. After all, it's the peak of summer and, for an all-too-brief period, Alaska is enjoying a cornucopia of fresh fish, produce and berries that have never touched a container ship.

Locovorism has recently become a boutique diet in some places; but it used to be a fact of life. In my youth in rural Alaska and on the Kenai Peninsula, about half of everything on the table was either hunted, grown or gathered within 20 miles of where I ate. The fare could be limited to what you had a lot of ("Aw, Mom, not king crab again!"), but anything not local was canned or powdered and expensive.

As transportation became more efficient, it became cheaper to bring in perishable food from Outside. The area chicken farm went away. Beef and pork production -- always a struggle in Alaska -- went sow belly up. The in-state dairy industry nearly vanished.

"In the 1950s, Alaska produced a lot more food for itself, somewhere between 30 and 50 percent," said Nick Moe of the Alaska Center for the Environment, which is sponsoring a film festival focused on food as part of an effort to raise nutritional awareness.

Now the number is less than 10 percent, maybe as low as 3 percent. "Nobody knows for sure," said Moe, but an upcoming statewide food assessment is planned for next year.

And yet, the center says, the state today has 660 farms and area farmers markets thrive at this time of year; at least one manages to run year-round.

Last year, the Alaska Division of Agriculture started its Restaurant Rewards Program, helping restaurants to cover the cost of buying Alaska food products. Some 40 restaurants took part in Southeast, Fairbanks, Denali Park and Southcentral. Anchorage eateries participating included Kinley's, Gwennie's, Sack's, Marx Bros. and Southside Bistro.

The program, which will reimburse a restaurant up to $6,000 over the course of a year, has been extended for another year and is open to any Alaska food vendor that serves Alaska grown food to the public. It does not include institutions, schools, jails or their suppliers. And it is restricted to fruits and vegetables produced by growers registered in the Alaska Grow program. (No eggs, milk, meat, grain or "value added" products like jam.)

Those who promote more locovoring argue that food from our own backyard is healthier, good for the economy and good for the environment. Local, small-scale farming uses fewer chemicals and pesticides, especially in Alaska, and reduced carbon emissions produced by shipping food across oceans and continents.

A refutation of the latter proposition, and others, is ably offered in Jayson Lusk's book "The Food Police: A Well-Fed Manifesto About the Politics of Your Plate" (Random House). But few deny that depending on delivery of food from afar poses a potential danger to Alaskans. Moe's group says that the state has only a 7-10 day supply of grub if we were abruptly cut off from the Lower 48.

That may be the best reason to spend a little time thinking about food in the coming week, even if you don't jar, smoke, dry, freeze or otherwise put up some of the summer's bounty yourself. If nothing else, it's an opportunity to celebrate what we do have, and Moe says there are good signs.

"We have a lot of really good producers," he said, citing honey and barley flour in addition to the state's vegetables and meat products.

And, he added, local chefs are rising to the challenge. "The chef at Beartooth walks to work on Saturday and stops by the Spenard Farmers Market," he said. "She picks up greens for the restaurant. Beartooth is one of the larger purchasers of local greens of any restaurant. They use tons of lettuce and cabbage."

He also mentioned Orso's, Glacier Brewhouse, Spenard Roadhouse and Turkey Red in Palmer among local establishments that make a point of buying from Alaska producers.

Beartooth Theatrepub and Grill participated in the Restaurant Rewards Program last year and is hosting the Fourth Annual Alaska Food Film Festival Monday through Thursday.

The festival "is a really good way for us to engage folks in issues about food and highlight Alaska food," said Moe. There will be question and answer sessions after some of the films.

The lineup of documentaries includes "GMO: OMG," which focuses on genetically modified plants -- which is to say most of what you eat and, unless you're reading this in the bathtub, a lot of what you're wearing at the moment. The economic advantages of GMO fruits, grains and vegetables have been pronounced; but a vociferous faction has raised questions about the health implications, ecological impacts and secrecy surrounding the practice. Efforts are not underway to require marketers of package foods to disclose any genetic modification in the product. Moe noted that more than 500 people marched on the Delaney Park Strip in May to protest Monsanto, an industry leader in GMO crops.

Other films in the series include "Now, Forager," a romance about mushroom hunters; "More than Honey," about the importance of bees in agriculture and the crises facing them; "Cafeteria Man," about school meals and what goes into it; and "Beer Hunter: The Story of Michael Jackson," the beer expert whose writings influenced the modern craft beer movement.

In addition, Moe said, there would be a couple of short films about Alaska from "The Store Outside Your Door" series.

"They'll feature Alaska chef Rob Kinneen," Moe said. "He goes to someplace in Alaska and whips up a fusion dish from what's there -- like beluga pizza. And he talks about the nutritional content of those traditional foods as well."

• Reach Mike Dunham at or 257-4332.