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State department heads come together to figure out Alaska food security

In a small, gray Atwood Building conference room, half a dozen state commissioners passed around a surprising snack: An enormous bowl full of yellow, purple and bright orange Alaska-grown carrots.

While carrots might not seem like the most expected snack for a high-level early morning meeting, it made sense Monday, when commissioners from various state departments came together in Anchorage to talk about one thing that ties all Alaskans together: food.

It was the first meeting of the Alaska Food Resources Working Group, a committee set up under an administrative order by Gov. Sean Parnell this summer to recommend measures to increase the purchase and consumption of Alaska seafood and farm products. The goal is to identify challenges while, at the same time, increasing coordination within government agencies.

“We're focusing efforts, looking for barriers, looking at what is government's role,” said Ed Fogels, the working group's chair and deputy Natural Resources commissioner. “It's about removing barriers instead of just passing laws."

Grappling with food security

Big names representing big state agencies sat around that conference room table Monday, including Fish and Game Commissioner Cora Campbell, Acting DNR Commissioner Joe Balash, Department of Environmental Conservation's Larry Hartig and Department of Correction's Joe Schmidt.

The meeting comes at a time when Alaska and the rest of the country is grappling with how to tackle food security while increasing interest in local foods.

Danny Consenstein, state executive director of the Alaska Farm Service Agency and a member of the Alaska Food Policy Council, said the working group idea is not new. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has one and Seattle recently began its own council.

But Alaska, despite all its natural resources, has never had a coordinated effort focused on how government agencies manage food. Despite the multi-billion dollar seafood industry, thousands of Alaskans are considered food insecure -- meaning they don't know where their next meal is coming from. According to a University of Alaska study on food security in Alaska, 11.6 percent of Alaskans are food insecure. That's roughly 80,000 people.

Rep. Bill Stoltze (R-Chugiak) has fought for food issues in the legislature, making sure $3 million was allocated last year to ensure that the successful Farm-to-School program continues. He was instrumental in making sure the working group was formed.

“(The point) is . .  (to) give everyone a fair chance at the marketplace,” he said. 

Alaskans spend $2.5 billion a year on food

Alaska's food system is complex and multi-layered. Fogels said just identifying local is tricky. In Alaska, shipping food from Anchorage to Barrow could be considered local, even though there are 730 miles between the two communities. 

According to the USDA, Alaskans spend $2.5 billion on food every year. Even though 680 farms operate in Alaska, 95 percent of that food is imported. Consenstein noted that in 1955, that number was closer to 55 percent. If Alaska began reducing its need for imported food, even just a little, that could make a difference, he said.

“Think about if we moved that by 10 percent. That would be $250 million going back to Alaska,” he said. “That's a big impact on our economy.”

Stoltze cautioned the group against moving too quickly. Everything should be considered from a business perspective, he said, or there will be "abysmal failures."

"I don't want this to supply a series of bad government anecdotes," he said, specifically pointing out the failed Valdez grain terminal that was built before a single seed of barley was planted.

Mike O'Hare, deputy director for the division of military and veterans affairs, said most Alaskans -- considered a self-reliant bunch -- would be shocked to know how dependent the state is on outside help. O'Hare, whose division falls under the Division of Homeland Security, noted establishing a strong, independent food system will be critical in the event of a natural disaster.

“How do we reestablish this culture of self-reliance?” he said.

Ultimately, that's the multi-million dollar question. The meeting Monday is the first of many to come, according to Fogels. With a better understanding of the whole food system and food security, Fogels is optimistic the different departments will come together not only to pinpoint challenges, but move forward on solutions.

“It's not about the trendiness of eating local,” he said. “It's about safety and the economy. That goes beyond trendiness.”

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com