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As state lawmakers prioritize Alaska agriculture, Kodiak Harvest’s new storefront is part of growing local food movement on the island

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(Photo by: Kodiak Harvest)

Kodiak’s local food co-op is going from distributing its wares at pop ups and events to a fixed brick and mortar location – a 2,000 square foot commercial space Kodiak Harvest opened this month near Mill Bay Road.

“We’re really excited with where we are today. Normally for the average food co-op it takes a while to actually get to a brick and mortar space,” said Tifani Perez, the project director for the Kodiak Harvest Food Cooperative.

Kodiak Harvest has only been around since the summer of 2016. It’s picked up more than 500 members since then. And it sources everything from lettuce, root vegetables and canned salmon from across the archipelago. That includes farms out in Bell’s Flats – near the Coast Guard base – and the villages.

“Last year we did source from Old Harbor, Port Lions and Larsen Bay,” said Perez.

The new food hub was funded by $293,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It’s not a full scale grocery store, but it serves as a connection between local food producers and customers – who pick-up weekly orders placed on the co-op’s website.

Perez said on an island like Kodiak – where everything from produce to milk arrives by barge – food security has always been top of mind. And she says the co-op saw a jump in sales when the pandemic hit.

“Some of the challenges that we always face as a remote island community, they’ve been exacerbated even more so by the pandemic,” said Perez. “The interruptions in the supply chain have brought that to the forefront of people’s minds.”

Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s also brought up that point when he delivered his State of the State address back in January.

“It’s often noted that Alaska’s grocery stores only have two weeks of food in stock,” Dunleavy said. “At the onset of the pandemic and more recently we’ve seen some empty shelves here in Alaska. The key component of a modern state is the ability to produce what it needs to ensure its own survival and that means we must build our own supply chain.”

As of 2019, more than a tenth of Alaskans were considered food insecure by Feeding America. At the same time, Alaska imports about 95% of its food, according to the Alaska Food Policy Council. That’s something fishermen and farmers on Kodiak Island are acutely aware of, says Kelli Foreman. Foreman – a fifth generation farmer with family ties in Nebraska – is the Alaska Farm Bureau’s vice president.

She also runs the Kodiak Baptist Mission’s Heritage Farm, which is the state’s only Grade A Certified goat dairy. And the kids enrolled in the mission’s afterschool program play a pivotal role in the operation – feeding the goats and helping around the farm. Foreman said she’s not necessarily trying to raise the next generation of farmers, but they’re learning a bigger lesson.

“They understand now that each of these baby goats represent sustainability for our island,” said Foreman.

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(Photo by: Kirsten Dobroth/KMXT)

Like the Kodiak Harvest food hub, Heritage Farm is an agricultural success story on the island; it’s popular. And products from the farm – like artisan cheese and goat’s milk ice cream – are available at some Kodiak retailers.

But Foreman says it’s not easy. Back in 2019, Gov. Dunleavy proposed cutting dairy inspection from the state budget, which would have shuttered her operation altogether. And there’s other hurdles.

“For agriculture in Kodiak, shipping is expensive. It’s really challenging to get feed at reasonable costs,” said Foreman. “A huge issue for us – we have two great beef producers on our island, but we have no place for them to get their meat processed.”

Meanwhile, state lawmakers in Juneau are taking notice. A bill moving through the legislature would establish temporary grants for meat processors and farm development in Alaska. The governor also created a food security task force just after his State of the State address. Kelli Foreman was among 13 members appointed to the group this month.

There’s also the Alaska Food and Farm Caucus – another group focused on Alaskan agriculture that was established back in January. Half the legislature – members of both parties – have joined the caucus since then. That’s the way it should be – particularly when it comes to Alaska agriculture – according to Foreman.

“I think any farmer will tell you they’re not into farming for the income or for what they get – they’re in it because they love the people that they get to feed,” said Foreman. “And no matter what you believe, everyone has to sit down and eat.”

Tifani Perez says that idea has proved to be a winning business model at Kodiak Harvest. And that it’s one small step toward statewide food security.

“I think that we can work together to use the resources we have here on the island so we can have a more reliable food source,” she said. “And frankly, if it’s grown here it’s going to be way more nutrient dense and better for you than something that was harvested a few weeks ago.”

Kodiak Harvest hopes that it will also be able to stock its new Selig Street storefront with retail items in the coming months.