Food security priorities need to be shaped and developed by locals, with the support of others outside.
That was the takeaway from a recent trip by U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency officials around the state, with stops in Kotzebue and Kivalina.
"What they got from us were the needs, most especially with food security," said Kivalina Mayor Austin Swan Sr. "We told them what we do and how we are trying to adapt to changes in the climate."
Washington, D.C.-based Farm Service Agency Administrator Val Dolcini took a whirlwind tour of Alaska last week with Danny Consenstein, director of the agency in Alaska.
The group traveled to Delta and other villages and stopped by the Alaska State Fair in Palmer to recognize the farm family of the year and check out the extra-large Alaska-grown produce the event is famous for.
"I think (it was important) for Val to see physically what it looks like, to walk around and see the land, thinking, 'Wow, could you grow anything here?' " said Consenstein.
As someone who has lived for years in the state and is familiar with many of the unique challenges growers are faced with on its varied landscapes, Consenstein said he hoped the out-of-state administrator would get a taste of Alaska by traveling around.
"Washington, D.C., is not going to come up with the ideas or solutions or answers to food security challenges," he said. "They're going to have to come from the people in the region, and they should. They're smart and creative and innovative and hardworking, and I think that kind of opened up his door."
In Kotzebue, the representatives visited Arctic Greens to see how the hydroponics operation is faring, now several months after it started producing greens to sell locally.
Farther north in Kivalina, they walked around the village, speaking with locals including Mayor Swan and one intrepid gardener, Colleen Swan.
"Once you learn how to garden, it's not so hard to do it. There are some food items that grow really well up here, like radishes and carrots. Radishes are really good. Potatoes grow in a good season, even cabbage and lettuce," said the mayor. "The summers are starting to be longer. We have an early spring now and that helps a lot, I think, for beginning a garden."
Shifting seasons are just one of the challenges residents here must learn to adapt to as climate change reshapes the land and its environment.
For outsiders, recognizing the importance of subsistence alongside grown food is key, Consenstein said.
"It's a huge part of their food security equation. Even without climate change, it's still a challenge to feed yourself there. But then, putting climate change impacts on top of that and the access to traditional subsistence foods making it even more food insecure, I think that really did strike (the administrator)," he said.
Although USDA programs are constrained by budgets and decisions made in Congress and the Farm Service Agency is dependent on the Farm Bill, there may be a way to move from the more cookie-cutter programs to developing ones that are more applicable to Alaska.
"How can you find some more flexibility and creativity in our programs to fit into a place like Kivalina? I think he has the door open to Alaska, whether it's in Kivalina or in Delta or in the Mat-Su with ideas on how to make programs fit better with unique challenges that people in Alaska face," Consenstein said.
Finally, with relocation on the horizon for villages like Kivalina, Shishmaref and Newtok, he said he hopes food security and food options will be a key part of local discussions about where to move.
"I think there's an opportunity for communities that are relocating to be strategic about where they put their village in terms of food," he said. "Will this be a place where there will be better soil to grow turnips and potatoes and foods that have roots in tradition?"
Locals are already starting to pinpoint the differences. In Kivalina, a site they are considering would put them about 7 miles inland from the current village.
"The distance to our subsistence activities, some of them would be further away, some activities off the ocean in the spring. That would be a big difference for us," said Swan.
Ultimately, bringing together locals who have the knowledge of their land and their needs with outside organizations with access to programs and grants may ease some of the challenges coming ahead.
More information about the Farm Service Agency and the grants and programs it facilitates in Alaska can be found at fsa.usda.gov/state-offices/Alaska/index.
This story first appeared in The Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission.