in Sitka, Alaska
A Push for Local, Healthy Foods
The City of Sitka, Alaska (population: 8,900), is an isolated community on the outside of Baranof Island . This remoteness makes for some beautiful views, but it also makes food and other services significantly more expensive. Most food arrives on barges once per week, based on favorable seas.
Transportation costs increase food prices significantly, as the charts show.
Overall, the cost of living in Sitka is 40% higher than the rest of the United States.
Fire Starters for Community Gardens
Based on the high cost of food—especially fresh produce—community members came together at the 2008 Sitka Health Summit. They prioritized two local-foods-oriented projects: a public market and an expansion of the community garden program.
The health summit functioned as the "fire starter" for these efforts, providing $2,000 of start-up money for each project. Two core groups or "fire tenders" would then raise any additional funds to carry out their projects.
The Sitka Local Foods Network (SLFN) grew out of the 2008 Sitka Health Summit and became an independent 501c3 organization which then went on to spawn additional projects with continued support from the Sitka Health Summit. The SLFN partnered with St. Peter's By-The-Sea Episcopal Church to create the St. Peter's Fellowship Farm. St. Peters provided the land on which to build the raised garden beds and the SLFN brought community members together to do the building and maintaining.
Eventually, the SLFN completed the other goal chosen at the 2008 Sitka Health Summit planning day, which was to create a local farmers market. Produce grown at the St. Peter's Fellowship Farm provided the majority of the produce for the SLFN booth. Building on the success of the Farmers Market, the next step in the process was to gain the proper certifications and permissions to allow families qualifying for the SNAP program to use their EBT cards to purchase fresh, locally grown, organic produce at the market.
One of several residential gardens in Sitka, AK
Making Food Affordable
The next step in this process, just recently accomplished, is a program to offset the cost of produce for families that qualify for the SNAP program. Even though we have fresh, locally grown, organic produce at the market, the cost is still fairly high. A family with limited financial resources still has to justify spending their money on two heads of fresh lettuce or purchasing more of less healthy foods that will fill their and their children's stomachs.
Through a grant, the SLFN has been able to offset the cost of produce at the Farmers Market for individuals involved in the SNAP program. For each dollar spent, the SLFN provides a matching dollar for the purchase of additional produce.
We are presently discussing reducing the cost of produce grown at the St. Peter's Fellowship Farm for individuals on the SNAP program. In addition to this, the Sitka Health Summit is considering subsidizing produce costs for families on SNAP. A last strategy is to engage the local churches and other service groups to contribute to offsetting these costs. An example, a head of lettuce that normally costs $4.00 could, through the offset program end up costing $2.00 for those presenting the EBT/SNAP card. We are hoping that through modeling this approach other Farmers Market vendors (and hopefully local grocery stores) will provide discounts for those presenting the EBT/SNAP cards.
From Gardens to Mason Jars
The Sitka Local Foods Network continued to expand community gardens through supporting other garden projects. Through their garden mentoring program, families were able to develop garden plots in their yards as well as develop the knowledge on how to plant and grow vegetables suited for the Sitka climate.
Other community partners joined in the project. Local contractors donated soil that community members could take for free to fill their garden beds.
The Sitka School District joined the effort by providing space to develop a larger community garden. Community members joined together to build multiple garden plots which community members could then rent out. Students from Blatchley Middle School also participated in the community gardens.
Community members created more local gardens at their personal residences which expanded the potential for locally grown organic produce.
Even the National Park Service placed a garden in front of the historic Russian Bishops House and students from the local preschool plant vegetables in it each year. The garden also provides additional tourism opportunities.
As gardens became more prevalent, the Sitka Local Food Network in partnership with the Sitka Conservation Society, the Sitka Health Summit, the First Presbyterian Church, the Sitka Food Co-op, the Sustainable Southeast Partnership and the University of Alaska-Southeast Cooperative Extension worked to create a local "commercial" kitchen to serve as an educational center to teach local residents how to can vegetables, make homemade bread, can salmon and a host of other skills. A grant was written and awarded. The local Presbyterian Church provided the space for the kitchen to be developed. This endeavor also created the opportunity for local entrepreneurship providing for a food related cottage industry.
From Local Sources to School Lunches
As efforts to produce more locally grown produce continued, the 2010 Sitka Health Summit planning day spawned yet another initiative when community members decided they wanted to supplement the locally grown organic produce with other local sources of food through establishing a program where locally harvested fish could be provided in school lunches. Once again, the Sitka Conservation Society took the lead and with the initial $2,000.00 from the Sitka Health Summit, worked to make the idea, reality.
The program started off with a monthly local fish lunch choice at Blatchley Middle School, but the program quickly expanded to include weekly local fish lunch choices at all Sitka schools (including the state-run Mount Edgecumbe High School boarding school and the private The SEER School).
In addition to putting local fish on the school lunch menu, the program included education about the fishing industry and its impact on the community (about one in five adults in Sitka work in the fishing industry). Local fishermen and women periodically shared lunches with the students, which helped the students connect with their local food system. Local fishermen also donated coho salmon to the program, to help keep it sustainable. In May 2014, the Sitka Fish to Schools program released a guidebook so other school districts in Alaska could create similar programs.
Sitka’s Fish to Schools Program is on the international list of 16 innovative school lunch programs and is "one of 16 school lunch programs from around the world making a difference", according to the organization Food Tank.
To engage the community in supporting the Fish to Schools Program, a local recipe contest was held and all recipes became part of the school lunch menu. A panel of judges tasted each of the submitted recipes and selected the winner at Sitka's Annual Seafood Festival.
I think that there are quite a few challenges that go along with using local foods in the school lunch program. Along with those challenges, there have been a lot of innovative and creative strategies that the schools have come up with. Sitka’s an example of how they’re able to sustain their fish-to-schools program, they have a curriculum that goes along with it. And it sounds to me like the way they’re able to do it is to create community around the fish in schools.
Lia Heifetz, The Southeast Farm & Fish to Schools Conference Coordinator
Sitka: A Short History
Tlingit carved and painted Dance Paddle
The Tlingit settled Sitka (Shee Atika, which means “people on the outside of Shee.") long before the first outpost by the Russian American Company was established in 1799.
The Tlingit were driven out of Shee Atika by the Russians in 1804 and eventually allowed to return in 1821 under strict surveillance (and canons). Known as New Archangel by the Russians, Sitka became the capital of Russian America. The transfer of Alaska from Russia to the United States took place in Sitka on October 18, 1867 and Sitka was Alaska’s first capital city.
Tlingit influences are evident and integral to the social and political fabric of present-day Sitka. The Alaska Native Brotherhood (founded in 1912) and the Alaska Native Sisterhood (founded in 1915) fought to have citizenship and equal rights for all native persons and are very active in present day Sitka. The loss of culture, history and tradition has negatively impacted Native peoples and has created a sense of generational grief and disconnect.
Bright Spots and Fail Forwards
The Sitka Health Summit has in many ways become one of the "Bright Spots" in our community, especially the annual Planning Day which has been in existence for over ten years. The annual planning day is a citizen driven process which results in two projects/goals being selected and implemented during the following year.
Members of the community come together for a day long interactive process which includes training on equity and the social determinants of health. After the training, individuals and groups identify a personal project which will improve the health and well-being of the community. They then present the project to the larger group, discuss why it is important and the impact it will have. All attendees then vote on the top projects by placing dots by their top four choices. Votes are tallied and the top two projects receive $2,000.00 each from the Sitka Health Summit.
The planning day process has spawned over twenty community projects, which in turn has led to additional secondary projects such as the community garden project described above which led to the farmers market and the community kitchen. The planning day process has been recreated in several other Alaskan communities with the technical support and guidance of Sitka Health Summit members.
As we moved forward with the community garden process and farmers market, a fail forward moment occurred when we discovered that many people who qualified for the SNAP program were not utilizing the farmers market. We made some assumptions that if we simply provided the fresh produce at the market, families qualifying for SNAP benefits would come and purchase the healthier produce. We failed to include those with lived experience as we were developing the plans. When we went back and listened to those with lived experiences, we discovered they wanted to purchase the fresh produce, but had to make a hard choice between getting less of a "healthy" higher cost item from the farmers market or getting more of a less healthy item at the local food stores. Providing food which filled their children's stomachs was more important than eating the healthier choice. People living on a tight budget did not have the luxury of purchasing the higher priced healthier food.
Based on this feedback, the SLFN created a subsidized process which actually doubled the amount of food families on the SNAP program received for the money spent. For each dollar spent, they would get an additional dollar to spend. We are now building on this concept through getting other organizations such as local churches and other service organizations to donate additional money to further offset food costs.