If you've seen more local foods in restaurant menus recently, it's no coincidence. For the last year, restaurants across the state have been quietly taking advantage of a program designed to incentivize the use of Alaska Grown produce.
In its one-year existence, the Alaska Grown Restaurant Rewards Program has already begun to see results. Restaurants see it as a way they can afford local produce, which generally is much more expensive, smaller in quantity and harder to get. Farmers and small-scale food distributors are able to produce more, given in the built-in market. The state sees it as an extension of the "Alaska Grown" brand that in-turn that helps build a small -- yet steady -- agriculture industry, according to state division of agriculture program assistant Kristi Krueger.
"A lot of farmers want to sell product to restaurants, but a lot of restaurants can't afford to buy it," Krueger said. "This is that stepping stone."
Krueger started the program last year, after learning about a similar one in Kentucky. Starting five years ago, the state offered to pay for a percentage of the locally grown foods restaurants purchased for use on their menus.
The program grew from giving out $26,000 a year for a few dozen restaurants to more than $150,000 last year to some 100 restaurants.
In Alaska, the program is funded through a $30,000 USDA Specialty Block Crop Grant. The program received the same grant in the same amount for 2013. So far, 32 restaurants across the state have signed up for the program, which uses a sliding scale to offer 10 to 20 percent off the cost of locally grown food.
The scale is based on a rubric Krueger put together. A restaurant that buys produce from multiple sources -- say, buying directly from a farmer and from a wholesale distributor selling local produce -- gets more points. The same goes for how often they advertise the local foods on their menu.
There's also a "past support" category, where restaurants get fewer points for each year they participate in the program. Krueger said that's to make sure the restaurants using the program to reach out to encourage the buying and selling of local food.
"I want to push them to do more," she said. "I didn't want (the program) to be a handout system."
Building local food communities
In Denali, Laura Cole has been purchasing local foods for years as chef and owner of 229 Parks Restaurant. Buying local is nothing new to her -- it was a creed the restaurant took on when it opened. Cole's menu changes based on what's available seasonally. Even the drinks are as local as possible -- no Coke, Pepsi or Budweiser on the menu.
It's been a challenge over the years, she said, and not one that the community immediately embraced.
"People didn't think we'd make it," Cole said.
Adding to the complication was the lack of growers in the area. But Cole persevered, creating an agreement with local farms, including the nearby Denali Organic Growers, to buy seasonal produce from them for 16 weeks a year.
The Alaska Grown program helps offset part of the costs, but at the same time allows the growers to produce a little more, knowing that the market will be there to purchase the product, even if times are tough.
In Denali, the community has come together in that support. Other restaurants, including the 49th State Brewing Company, have also signed on with the Alaska Grown program. Some of the root vegetables Denali Organic Growers produces goes to local schools, and those local schools, which have no space to store hundreds of pounds of potatoes, turned to 229 Parks to store the food for the winter.
Cole said the tide on local food has changed so much, there's talk of building a greenhouse warmed by the waste heat of a nearby coal-fired power plant.
Cole realizes that the Alaska Grown program, with it's grant funding, may not be a "forever" thing, but at least it's changed people's attitude in the Denali Park area.
"People who are Alaskans are proud to be Alaskans," she said. "To have this Alaska grown program and have it mean something is really great … it's been a wonderful asset to everyone's ability to think about what our ground can produce."
Dave Thorne, a caterer and owner of Alaska Root Sellers in Anchorage, a local produce distributor, said the Alaska Grown program is slowly catching on. In the summer, Thorne gets the produce from the farms in the morning and delivers it to the restaurants by the afternoon. He said while some chefs have expressed frustration over late arrival times, the Alaska-grown program -- plus the high quality of the food -- seems to make up for it.
"It gives chefs more incentive to buy local," Thorne said. "Once you go local, you never go back."
Bigger food market
Under the USDA grant stipulations, the program is limited to produce, honey and birch syrup. Krueger hopes that it eventually could expand to other Alaska-grown products, such as dairy, meat, grains and aquaculture products -- like farmed oysters and scallops.
That sort of help could come with funding from other organizations, and it would add another link to Alaska's increasingly diverse local food market.
"Schools, restaurants and other institutions will be encouraged to buy more (through the program)," Krueger said, "which, in turn, has an economic impact for the state. It's a win-win situation for everyone."
Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com