GreenBiz Reads

In a small Alaskan town, entrepreneurs attempt to go from food insecure to secure

Downtown Sitka, Alaska at Sunset
ShutterstockRoman Sorokin
Downtown Sitka, Alaska at Sunset

This is an excerpt from "Food Town, USA: Seven Unlikely Cities That Are Changing the Way We Eat" by Mark Winne. Copyright 2019 by Mark Winne. Reproduced with permission from Island Press, Washington, D.C. The book releases Oct. 1.

The Little Town That Could

It can be hard enough living in a place where there are critters that occupy a rung above you in the food chain. It’s even harder when your entire community is at the end of the national food chain and dependent on semiweekly barge shipments from Seattle for 95 percent of your food. This vulnerability became immediately obvious to me when I arrived at Sitka’s Saturday morning farmers’ market at 10:30 to buy some produce. Though it had just opened at 10, the stalls were nearly empty. I managed to grab a head of lettuce (courtesy of Laura Schmidt, who sold me her last one) and a bunch of beach asparagus about which I knew nothing. When I asked Andrea [Fraga, a boat pilot and farmer], who had one bunch of garlic scapes left, what her annual gross sales were, I was shocked to hear that she could produce that much food off 3,000 square feet, but humbled when I realized what a small percentage of the community’s need her sales and those of her few fellow farmers represented.

Food Town USA Book CoverSitka’s insecure food position is partially offset by the fact that its 9,000 residents occupy a narrow strip of land that is surrounded by unparalleled natural bounty and beauty. On one side, the ocean appears to offer an endless quantity of marine species such as salmon, halibut, herring roe and rockfish. On the forest and mountain side, which in some places descends very steeply to barely a half mile from the ocean, game is available to hunt, and plants and berries to gather. Based on a food survey done by the Sitka Local Foods Network, 48 percent of Sitkans access fish and game through hunting and fishing (another 24 percent receive subsistence food — fished, hunted or gathered — from others as gifts or donations), and 57 percent eat fish or game several times a week. These high numbers reflect several factors, including the simple fact that wild food is so abundant, food purchased at stores is so expensive, Alaskan residents are entitled to harvest wild food for subsistence purposes (its cost is free or very low, assuming you don’t need a boat), and perhaps most important, Native Alaskans have always relied on wild food — long before there were grocery stores, food barges or food stamps.

Sitka is one of the most expensive places in the United States to buy food. Not only are food prices 35 percent higher than the U.S. mainland average, they are 10 to 21 percent higher than all but the most remote Alaskan towns. People make a mighty effort to grow some of their own, but minuscule amounts of even partially flat land and stony soils conspire against the most tenacious gardener. I was to learn during a week of research in Sitka that small things like herring roe matter and that big things like food cannot be taken for granted. Over 850 miles by air from Seattle and even farther by sea, Sitka is not accessible to the mainland by road. And when the food barge is delayed by bad weather and logistical malfunctions, which is often, terms like "food insecurity" as well as "traditional and subsistence foods" take on more profound meanings.

But I would learn one more thing about Sitka that would put its strengths and weaknesses into perspective: the place has an uncommon sense of community that keeps a watchful eye on its food security and pushes and pulls relentlessly to find solutions to difficult challenges. Like the childhood tale of the little train pushing with all its might up a steep grade, Sitka is the little town that could. None of which is to say, of course, that it suffers quietly, enduring long, subarctic nights with nothing but dried strips of salmon to gnaw on. Celebration of place and food abound, informed by a proximity to forests, to the ocean, to Native traditions, and even to mundane things like seaweed. Great coffee shops, brewpubs, and some darn good chefs have turned this watery location into a place that will keep most demanding foodies happy. It is a place where the men under 40 have ruddy, seawater-scrubbed cheeks, scruffy beards and ball caps with fishing logos pulled down tight over their heads. It’s a place where the women know how to gut and fillet a 7-pound salmon, aim and shoot a rifle, field-dress a deer and prepare the best seafood quiche you’ll ever eat. And it’s a place where people pull together for the common good.

A Collective Blessing

I’m sitting in the backseat of Keith Nyitray’s 18-year-old Ford Escape as he gives me a tour of "greater" Sitka. It’s not that I have some kind of VIP status that puts Keith in the chauffeur position, it’s more that his front passenger door is broken and all the other seats are occupied with documents and products for the Sitka Food Co-op, which Keith manages. The tour doesn’t take long. It’s one road that goes 7 miles south from downtown, and the same road that goes 7 miles north. They both dead-end after passing Sitka’s three small grocery stores, fish-processing plants, the tourist cruise ship terminal, a few microfarms, the Baranof Island Brewing Company, a trailer park, chocolate factory, fish hatchery and a hodgepodge of marine- and auto- repair businesses.

Keith is tall, wiry, and energetic beyond his 59 years, and reminds me of the "co-opers" I knew in my early days who were so smitten with managing small co-ops that they worked 24-7 for what amounted to a subminimum wage. He tells me that his compensation is only a little more than Alaska’s minimum wage of $9.84 per hour, and he often "eats" his overtime. We end up at the Mean Queen, a restaurant and bar that doesn’t quite qualify as a dive — there are a couple of such smoky establishments in town — but barely rises to the level of mediocre. Mary Magnuson is the proprietress, who seems neither mean nor particularly regal, but presides over the noisy venue with enough authority to maintain order. Should things ever get out of hand, my assumption is that she would pull a baseball bat out from under the bar.

As revved up as he is, Keith manages the co-op prudently and professionally, resisting the pressure to expand as fast as possible. Currently there are 230 family members, and because, according to Keith, the average co-op price is 26 percent lower than the town’s grocery stores, the demand to grow is constant. Currently, the co-op operates two days a month out of Harrigan Centennial Hall, a waterfront community center. All member orders are placed online, which makes it quite easy for Keith to compile them and place orders with wholesalers on the mainland. (On two occasions when I was interviewing Keith, he was giving one-on-one ordering tutorials for new members.) All in all, the co-op is providing 5.5 tons of food each month with total annual sales valued at $500,000.

Sitka doesn’t have a Walmart or a Sam’s Club. Competition among the small grocery stores is not sufficient to keep food prices down, and they do not possess large buying or storage capacity. On a small scale, what the co-op is doing is pooling the buying power of its members to secure the discounts associated with larger-scale buying. But its smallness, which is a function of not having a permanent facility, is a drawback.

"Given Sitka’s economic trends, we know that the co-op will continue to grow at a substantial rate. We need a permanent, store-like space that will help us meet the need," Keith told me. Up until the fall of 2018, Keith and other co-opers thought their dreams for a facility of their very own would come true. The First Presbyterian Church, which had ministered to the Sitka community for 100 years, held its last service that July. Since it was also housing a variety of community services, including a community kitchen, Keith saw the decommissioned church as a perfect space for an expanded co-op as well as a potential community food center. But unexpected snafus emerged, sinking the deal to the chagrin of all involved.

In a place like Sitka, where nothing comes easy, setbacks are part of the territory. Hard-driving social entrepreneurs like Keith and private entrepreneurs like Andrea know how to roll with the punches, but true grit is never enough. Without community support — some kind of collective blessing, as it were — the innovation and sweat that flow from individual creativity are not nurtured, often leaving good ideas flailing in the wind. In Sitka, there is an institutional bridge of sorts that raises up good ideas, connects them to the community and incubates them until they are able to stand on their own. That process was itself the brainchild of the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium, which started the annual Sitka Health Summit as a way to bring the community together around a broadly defined agenda to promote health.

Doug Osborn is the director of health promotion for the Sitka Community Hospital, and the primary mover and shaker behind the health summit, which is actually a coalition of Sitka health agencies and organizations. He tells me that Sitka is perhaps slightly healthier, at least statistically, than other Alaskan communities, but substance abuse, alcoholism and diabetes are serious problems for the community. Doug said, "Less than one-quarter of the population are getting the recommended five a day of fruits and vegetables.”

He attributes Sitka’s generally better health profile to several things, including its more liberal political attitudes, higher education levels and a reasonably diverse economy that’s based on tourism, health care, seafood and education. But the big thing that stands out for him, as well as just about everyone else I met in Sitka, is social capital, that "glue" that holds people together, usually for the purpose of getting something done that they couldn’t do by themselves.

The centerpiece of the summit, and where you’ll find social capital bursting at the seams, is "Planning Day." That’s when up to 100 citizens meet, listen to ideas for community improvement, and after hearing out numerous proposals, select two or three ideas for support. As Doug told me, food is among the community’s top concerns. Out of the 20 initiatives selected by the summit since its start in 2007, about half were related to food, including a composting project, citywide fruit-tree planting, a community kitchen, large gardens, the farmers’ market, a Fish to School project and even a community food assessment.

By the end of Planning Day, the initiatives are selected and groups are formed to shepherd them to success. Each initiative group receives start-up funds (a modest amount of perhaps $2,000 each) as well as support from the Sitka Health Summit. Since 2007, the vast majority of the initiatives were characterized as highly successful, though a handful have failed or simply never got off the ground. Win or lose, the event brings people together to launch a number of small but transformative projects that have probably touched every member of the community.

The health summit is not the only time when the community comes together to build their common wealth. Voluntarism abounds, sometimes with so much energy that it feels like too many atoms colliding in too small a space. According to Keith, there are 123 nonprofit organizations in Sitka, which for a town of 9,000 people is a lot, and that’s not counting houses of faith and various other civic organizations, such as Kiwanis. By law, each nonprofit must have a board of directors. In a town like Sitka, with so much to do and not enough money to pay for the necessary staff, board members must often do some of the program work. Several people I spoke with told me their organization’s work was often limited by a lack of volunteers to fill seats on the board. This is a common problem in rural areas and small towns, where the same people are often tapped to do too much work until they find themselves emotionally tapped out.