Local food sellers in Anchorage and Fairbanks encouraged the Legislature on Monday to work toward greater food security in Alaska. This was in an effort to promote more local food production and consumption across the state.
The two advocates for regional food production said that Alaskans can promote greater independence in their food systems by relying on local producers.
Erica Lujan is the manager of Blue Market AK, a grocery store located in Anchorage that focuses on stocking locally produced food while generating as little waste as possible.
Lujan is a fierce advocate for eating locally, and had much to say regarding how Alaskans receive their food. “There is no reason why when we sit down at any restaurant in the state we shouldn’t be eating locally grown Alaska french fries,” she said as a part of a presentation in the Capitol.
She pointed out that eating food produced locally can help ease the statewide problem of food insecurity. Currently, Alaska relies on imports for 95% of its food supply according to a 2022 report conducted by the Alaska Food Security Task Force. This food shipped from outside of the state is estimated to cost Alaskans over $2 billion annually.
Some regional food production advocates like Lujan and Brad St. Pierre believe that money can go back into Alaskans’ pockets instead. St. Pierre is the manager of the Tanana Valley Farmers Market in Fairbanks.
“We should spend our money where our mouth is. If you want a strong Alaska economy, strong Alaskans and food security, we have to save local farms and encourage our next generation to be value-producers,” St. Pierre said. He and Lujan presented as part of the “lunch and learn” series, in which Alaskans across the state speak before legislators regarding an issue they are passionate about. It was sponsored by Rep. George Rauscher, R-Sutton.
Both speakers pointed out that there are considerable barriers to getting access to locally produced food in the state. One such barrier is infrastructure. Lujan noted that many local food producers struggle to take their animals to one of three U.S. Department of Agriculture–approved slaughterhouses in the state due to distance and cost of transport. This then can increase the costs of meat, creating a barrier to purchase for customers.
“We would like to find a way to bring the distribution and sale cost of meat down to make it more accessible [for customers],” Lujan said.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy formed the Alaska Food Security Task Force last year to make recommendations on how to increase food production and harvesting in the state.
In a draft report, the task force described the infrastructure as a barrier to food security as well. Among many other recommendations to improve farming infrastructure, the task force advised increasing distribution and storage facilities for processing meat, creating and supporting a farm equipment library and providing opportunities for farming education.
Education about food production was emphasized by St. Pierre. “We need to educate and encourage the next generation of farmers. We can’t just have food produced in a couple of pockets in the state. We need food produced in all areas of the state,” he said.
Lujan shared similar thoughts. She expressed her excitement about the learning opportunities that local food suppliers like Blue Market AK can provide Alaskans. There is a benefit to knowing customers, what they want out of their food and what questions they may have about it. “We know who is grinding their own flour to bake bread with their kids. We know who is canning vegetables and passing that food preservation knowledge through generations and so we can make sure to stock those products they like, you know, better than someone who is sitting in a corporate office deciding what the Fred Meyer on Muldoon should sell,” Lujan said.
Lujan went on to say that this knowledge can help a community better understand the importance of food security and what their needs are — something that is very important to Lujan personally. “Running small grocery stores at all is really a labor of love. None of us are getting rich but we are here every day because we believe in the ability of Alaska to find food security and food independence,” she said.
In closing, Lujan remarked on her time at Blue Market AK and her work to increase food security in the state. “In my career, I think that this is some of the most important work that I’ve done. I’m 34 years old right now, I hope that at 64 I’m still behind the same cash register.”
Originally published by the Alaska Beacon, an independent, nonpartisan news organization that covers Alaska state government.