Friday, May 28, 2010

Fast Food Nation author implores Alaskans to grow their own food

From left, Associate Professor Joshua Greenberg, author Eric Schlosser, student Charles Caster, Professor Milan Shipka visit at UAF May 27.
While dining on an Alaska-grown meal with SNRAS faculty, students, and staff May 27, author Eric Schlosser asked, “What is your vision for agriculture by 2025?”

“People would be growing more food and would better utilize forage for ruminant livestock,” Professor Milan Shipka said. Dean and Director Carol Lewis added that she hopes there will be more controlled environment facilities that run on efficient energy to help prolong the growing season.

Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, was in Fairbanks to give a lecture for Summer Sessions and agreed to meet with key players from the agriculture school who are involved in food security and food production. “What you do is important to the future of this state,” Schlosser told the luncheon guests Thursday.

At the filled-to-capacity UAF Davis Concert Hall that evening, Schlosser compared the food movement of the past forty years to the environmental movement. “The food we eat has changed more in the past forty years than it had in the previous 40,000 years,” he said.

He recalled the first Earth Day in 1970 when the young people who started it were criticized. The year before, Apollo astronauts had captured a photo of “this blue, fragile disk adrift in total blackness. From space there were no borders and it was so beautiful that people thought maybe it was worth saving and protecting,” Schlosser said. In the past four decades the environmental movement went from a fringe element to part of the fabric of American life.

At the same time that caring for the environment was improving, there was a big problem brewing in the country’s food systems. “It has happened without most people knowing about it,” Schlosser said. “There has been no debate about whether this is a good idea.”

Fast food companies and agribusinesses don’t want people to know what is in their food or how it’s made or where it came from, Schlosser said. “They want you to buy it and eat it and like it and buy more.”

$3 billion per year is spent on television advertising by fast food companies. “Those ads don’t show the feedlots,” Schlosser said. “The success of the entire modern food system depends on our ignorance of how it operates.” He said Americans have a deeply unhealthy relationship to food. “Mass culture celebrates thinness and at the same time mass marketing of food is almost guaranteed to make you fat.” While the young who are poor tend to be obese, the wealthy lean toward eating disorders to stay thin. “We have a disconnect from food,” Schlosser said.

The public is unaware of the conditions animals are raised in. Forty years ago there were thousands of meat slaughter houses in the US; now there are thirteen huge ones where “living, breathing creatures have been turned into industrial commodities.” Thousands of chickens crammed into dark buildings never see the light of day. Hogs' immune systems become so compromised that they could not survive outside the buildings they live in. Cattle stand crowded together in their own waste. “If you saw them you would not want to eat that meat,” Schlosser said. “Never in human history has livestock been raised the way we are raising them now. It is like a bad science fiction movie.”

A McDonald’s slogan of a few years back, “One Taste Worldwide,” sums up the problem for Schlosser. In 1970 there were 1,000 McDonald’s restaurants; today there are 30,000, and hundreds of other companies have copied the model. Fast food restaurants are the largest purchasers of many food products and this has changed the way food is produced, distributed, and consumed. It has promoted centralization and industrialization of food so everything at each restaurant in the chain tastes the same.

He also addressed social justice issues of people working at fast food restaurants, meatpacking plants, and farms for low wages and no benefits. “This is a vulnerable workforce,” he said. He has been working to prevent slave labor in Florida’s tomato industry.

On the health side, Schlosser mentioned the rise in food poisoning due to entirely new and dangerous pathogens in food. One hamburger patty at a fast food restaurant contains meat from thousands of different cattle, Schlosser said, increasing the risk of disease. “Think of that when you are about to bite into your next Big Mac,” he advised.

The antibiotics given to animals are making humans sick, he said. “70,000 Americans die every year from antibiotic resistant bugs.” The same types of steroids illegal for athletes to use are routinely implanted in the ears of feedlot cattle. Schlosser suspects the increases in breast and prostate cancers may be due to hormones in food. Fish that live downstream from feedlots have been found to have deformities.

The people most at risk are children and the elderly. Fast food, which is high in fat, sugar, starch, and salt, compromises the health of these vulnerable citizens. “These are ideal foods to make you unhealthy,” Schlosser said. “And they sell tons of soda because it is the most profitable thing they sell.”

While people in the US used to be some of the most fit people now they are terribly unfit. The obesity rate has nearly doubled for toddlers and tripled for children ages 6 to 11. “Alaska has one of the highest obesity rates in the US,” Schlosser said. “Alaska has more in common with Alabama and Mississippi than western states when it comes to obesity.”

Diabetes is another concern, with one in three children born in 2000 destined to develop diabetes. Among poor people the number is one in two.

“What is to be done?” Schlosser asked. “That all sounds really grim but an entirely different system is possible and necessary.” He stressed organic foods, buying local food, and reconnecting people with where food comes from. He said he is encouraged by the interest in sustainability found on college campuses.

“The fast food system exploits the weak and the poor and threatens our entire democratic system,” he said. “We need an agricultural system based on social policies and access to healthy, nutritional food for every member of society.”

He added, “Hey, you guys in Alaska gotta grow your own. You need to remember where food comes from. Alaska is the most food insecure state; that is not good.” He said Alaska has 15 million acres suitable for agriculture, yet only 30,000 acres are cultivated. (See addendum.) “Rhode Island has twice as many farms as you and their value of agricultural products is twice as big. Now come on, you guys need to grow food in your back yards, have school gardens, and buy food grown in this state.”

He closed with a passage from the book, Alaska – Our Northern Wonderland, written in 1923 by Frank Carpenter. The book praises the abundance and variety of crops grown in the Tanana Valley at that time.

“It can be done here and it needs to be done,” Schlosser said. “Next time I come to Fairbanks I hope to be served cantaloupe that was grown here.”

Addendum (From SNRAS Dean and AFES Director Carol Lewis, June 1, 2010): The 15 million acres is a wonderful quote, but if you look at Roeger (1958), you'll see the rest of the story. Only 500,000 are accessible by road or rail. There are opportunities to use non-agricultural lands if we use controlled environments and composting, however. There are more than 30,000 acres actually cleared and in Delta alone there are about 100,000 acres.

Funding granted for fire information coordination

Controlled burn at Nenana Ridge June 2009 (Photo by Todd Paris, UAF Marketing)
The Alaska Fire Science Consortium at UAF has received $435,000 from the Joint Fire Science Program to provide a conduit for professional research to get into the hands of fire and land managers. The funding, which covers a two-year project, will make it possible to improve fire management by making the results of fire science research more accessible to fire managers and decision-makers.

Alaska’s organization is one of eight regional fire science consortiums recently created around the nation. “This will be a hub for fire science information in Alaska,” said Sarah Trainor, project principal investigator and stakeholder liaison for the UAF Scenarios Network for Alaska Planning. “It will enhance communications between fire science managers and make the research more applicable and useful to people on the ground.”

The consortium will help with coordinating information between various fire agencies and disseminate the results of northern latitude and boreal forest fire science to fire managers. One of Trainor’s goals is to host an annual Alaska-wide workshop, which is set for October in Anchorage this year, and on-site field workshops. The consortium will also produce a newsletter and fact sheets, set up statewide fire science teleconferences and webinars, host a fire science help desk, and develop innovative fire prediction tools.

A consortium coordinator will soon be on board to carry out many of the duties. Partners include the UAF School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences, Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy, the Bureau of Land Management-Alaska Fire Service, the National Park Service, US Fish & Wildlife Service, and BLM Lands.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Fast Food Nation author speaks Thursday

Eric Schlosser (pictured at right), author of “Fast Food Nation” and co-producer of the documentary “Food, Inc.” will present a free lecture on the UAF campus May 27. “Fast Food Nation and Ruminations: An Evening with Eric Schlosser” will begin at 5:30 p.m. in Davis Concert Hall.

After the 2001 release of his book, “Fast Food Nation,” Schlosser became a lead spokesman for a new food movement: a turn away from fast food and mass-produced products in favor of more natural products and local food production. The book and subsequent documentary, released in 2006, called attention to such practices as feeding feedlot cattle waste from hog slaughterhouses; exploiting vulnerable populations with low paying and dangerous jobs; and using an advertising strategy that “feed(s) off the young.”

Despite his fame in this topic, Schlosser’s career is diverse. Initially a playwright and creative writer, he later turned to investigative reporting, covering black-market economies, the national prison system, and agriculture. He also co-produced the award-winning film “There Will Be Blood” and wrote a children’s book, “Chew On This: Everything You Don’t Want to Know About Fast Food.”

A free showing of Schlosser’s “Food, Inc.” is scheduled for June 10 at 7 p.m. in Schaible Auditorium. Summer Sessions & Lifelong Learning, UAF Cooperative Extension Service, and the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research are sponsoring Schlosser’s visit to UAF.

Related reading:

"Fast Food Nation author still seeking story behind the All-American meal", Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, May 21, 2010, by Jeff Richardson

Lecture addresses local food production

The Alaska Center for Energy and Power will host a community lecture May 25 at 6 p.m. at the Blue Loon on the Parks Highway.

The lecture, Local Food Production for Energy Security, will discuss how producing food locally can improve local energy security. Speakers include Tom Zimmer from Calypso Farm and Ecology Center, Jeff Werner from the UAF School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences, and Markus Mager from the Alaska Center for Energy and Power. The lecture is free and open to the public.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Alaska Food Policy Council meeting

The Alaska Food Policy Council met in Anchorage May 18 & 19 for the first time in a meeting organized by Diane Peck of the Obesity Prevention and Control Program of the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services and Danny Consenstein of the USDA Farm Service Agency of Alaska. The facilitator of the meeting was Mark Winne, of the Community Food Security Coalition. Some 80 people were in attendance.

The meeting began with an excellent lunch made with Alaska foods prepared by Robert Kinneen, executive chef of the restaurant Orso. The menu included shrimp, an elk and vegetable roll loaf, and cole slaw, with almost all the ingredients grown or harvested in Alaska. The meal made the point that Alaskans can eat and eat well with foods that originate in their own state. Introductory speeches were given by Alli Harvey, the Sustainable Communities Director of the Alaska Center for the Enviroment, and Bill Hogan, the Department of Health and Social Services Commissioner. Afterward, Winne gave a presentation, "What is a Food Policy Council?"

The meeting's objectives were to:
• Develop a clear understanding of the role and activities of a food policy council. This was not as easy as it might sound: Winne provided a thorough overview of what food policy councils do (there are 100 of them across North America) and how they operate, but questions were still surfacing about them on the second day of the meeting. Part of the reason for this is that the structure and activities of food policy councils depend on the individual council. The executive summary (PDF) of a report by the Community Food Security Coalition on food policy councils, Food Policy Councils: Lessons Learned, was included as part of the participant materials. (The full report is also available as a PDF at their website.) Winne described how effective food policy councils complement the work of the private and public sectors, working best with the three Ps: projects, partnerships, and policies. Winne pointed out that there are no departments of food in any state government, although many state departments have to do with food (agriculture, transportation, health & safety, commerce, etc.); a food policy council can act as a de facto Department of Food.

• Identify food system issues and priorities in Alaska. Most of the meeting was devoted to this topic. Winne led discussions over two days, during which the participants identified issues at play in Alaska concerning: values around food; food issues in Alaska (these ranged from nutrition, food safety, environmental contamination, food equity and justice concerns, food production, production support industry [compost, agricultural equipment manufacturers, seed growers & sellers, etc.], food education, game management, traditional use, food security in the event of a natural or man-made disaster, social and cultural importance of food and eating, and so forth); strengths and weaknesses of the food systems in Alaska, and so on. On the second day, six main areas were identified: council governance and structure; health, food security, hunger, social justice, and safety; rural and subsistence/traditional use; education and regulation; food production; and the food supply chain (processing, distribution, development, transportation, and infrastructure). The attendees broke up into groups along these lines and reviewed and prioritized issues in their respective groups, and considered two questions: what do we need to know, and who is missing?

• Evaluate different organizational structures of food policy councils around the country and decide what could work for Alaska. Food policy councils tend to be either independent of government, government-based entities, or a hybrid of the two. The meeting attendees seemed to lean toward either an independent group or a hybrid, the main concerns being that if there was not buy-in from the policy makers and agencies in government, that the council would not be taken seriously, or would have no impact; however, if a part of government, then the council might be too subject to political vagaries.
Seven speakers gave five-minute overviews of different aspects of food issues in Alaska:

• Economy: Danny Consenstein, Farm Service Agency. Approximately 100,000 Alaskans make their living in a food-related business, and Alaskans spend $2.5 billion per year on food.
• Rural issues: Craig Gerlach, professor of anthropology with the UAF Center for Cross-Cultural Studies. Gerlach discussed food systems and their vulnerabilities. He pointed out that "being self-reliant does not mean producing all food locally."
• Production: Milan Shipka, UAF professor of animal science and associate director of the Alaska Agricultural & Forestry Experiment Station. Alaska's food production is incredibly diverse. We may not be able to be completely self-sufficient in food production, but we can improve our food security and export markets, and we can produce food anywhere in the state including urban centers.
• Health: Ward Hurlburt, state of Alaska Chief Medical Officer and director of the Division of Public Health.
• Food Insecurity: Merri Mike Adams, managing director of the Food Bank of Alaska.
• Supply chain: Robin Richardson, member manager of the Global Food Collaborative.
• Safety: Kristin Ryan, director of the Alaska Division of Environmental Health.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Community Food Security Coalition, the UAF Cooperative Extension Service, Alaska Root Sellers, the Alaska Farm Bureau, the Division of Agriculture, the Division of Public Health, the Alaska Center for the Environment, Orso Restaurant, the Farm Service Agency, and the Alaska Comprehensive Cancer Partnership contributed to and helped organize the event.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

FFA holds state convention

New FFA state officers are, from left, President Corinne Ogle of Homer, Vice President Ben Blue of Homer, Secretary Emily Henkelman of Homer, Reporter Isaac Courson of Palmer, Treasurer Irene Fry of Palmer. (Photo courtesy Alaska FFA)

Alaska FFA Advisor Jeff Werner welcomed fifty students from the Mat-Su Borough School District, Homer, Kodiak, Fairbanks, and North Pole to the FFA state convention April 23 in Palmer. The event, with a theme of "lead out lead," brought students together to explore the more than 300 career opportunities in agriculture and natural resources.

Students participated in mock job interviews and other specific career development events, such as prepared speaking and extemporaneous and creed speaking. In addition to the competitions, the students toured the Matanuska Experiment Farm and the Matanuska Creamery.

Lt. Gov. Craig Campbell and SNRAS Dean and AFES Director Carol Lewis met with the students. Also on hand were Rep. Carl Gatto, Rep. Bill Stoltze, and Rep. Jay Ramras.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Geography offers new survey of elevation modeling techniques class

A new special topics course will be offered for fall semester at UAF. The Geography 293 course, Survey of Elevation Modeling Techniques, is a three-credit class that will meet Thursdays from 6 to 9 p.m.

The class will introduce topographic mapping, contouring, hypsography, and digital elevation modeling, including a history of their development. It will survey relevant technology and techniques, including vertical mapping datums, land surveying, stereo imaging, photogrammetry, GPS, LiDAR (light detection and ranging), SAR (synthetic aperture radar), SAR Interferometry, and SONAR bathymetric mapping. It will include application studies such as glacier monitoring using LiDAR and SAR, and LiDAR biomass and forest canopy estimation, as well as flood plain mapping and tsunami inundation models for emergency managers.

Keith Cunningham, senior data quality engineer at the Alaska Satellite Facility, and specialist in LiDAR, remote sensing, and automated feature extraction, will be the instructor. Prior to joining ASF, Dr. Cunningham worked for twenty hears in the field of GIS for emergency telecommunications and emergency management.

If interested in the course, contact Cary deWit associate professor and chair of the UA Geography Program, 474-7141.

Final senior thesis session tackles seafood processing waste, Chena River property values

Nicole Swensgard, left, and Laurel Gale, right, presented their senior thesis work April 30.

The final senior thesis presentations of the spring found Laurel Gale giving her proposal, “Ecological effects on benthic infauna by seafood processing waste discharges in Alaska,” and Nicole Swensgard reporting on the completion of her thesis: “How does access to the Chena River affect property values?”

“Coastal areas in the Gulf of Alaska have been utilized by the commercial seafood processing industry since the nineteenth century,” Laurel Gale said. Over time the waste outfall generated from seafood processors has begun to affect the benthic infauna, marine organisms that live near shore areas, dwell in sediment, are slow moving, and vary in size from the microscopic bacteria to animals such as mollusks or sea cucumbers.

Current regulations are under the national Discharge Elimination Permit, managed by the Environmental Protection Agency and the State of Alaska. With the “grind and dump” policy, material must fit through a half-inch screen; the discharge area must be one square acre, with a 100-foot mixing zone. No effluent slicks can show on the water surface and non-compliance results in fines and/or shutdown of the plant.

“Each year billions of gallons of seafood processing waste is pumped into near shore area ecosystems in Alaska,” Gale said. Of Alaska’s 880 seafood processors, 90 create 95 percent of total effluent outfall. Each processor is allowed 10 million pounds per year of solid waste residue that settles. A single processor in Cordova is permitted to discharge up to one million gallons per month.

Discharge effluent does not decompose quickly because of the already low oxygenated environmental conditions. The waste acts as super nitrogenous waste and causes affects similar to the eutrophication process in fresh water systems. The added nutrients cause algal blooms, increased bacterial activity, reduced oxygen, and the death of infaunal communities which creates dead zones. Also, there is physical suffocation of the infauna as the effluent blankets the sediments and organisms can’t reach water with siphons and tubules, resulting in their death.

To lose benthic infauna removes a key component of the food chain, affecting the Steller’s sea eider, Steller’s sea lion, sea otters, benthic feeding fishes, and even humans. The decrease of habitat for higher trophic levels and the decrease of water quality occur in both chemical and physical parameters.

Benthic organisms are useful as indicator species for disturbed areas because they tend to remain in place and typically react to long range environmental changes. They are believed to reflect the biological health of marine areas.

Gale said seafood processing effluent effects have not been studied much. One of the few studies in Alaska was done by Burrell and Feder in 1982. They found infauna markedly decreased or absent in areas with seafood processing effluent. New concerns are increased oceanic dead zones, floating bacterial mats, and decreasing health and fecundity of marine species. She cited skin infections in sea birds and nematode infections in benthic feeding mammals as examples.

Gale’s hypothesis is that compared to unaffected areas, places with seafood waste will show a decrease of biodiversity of benthic infauna, an increase of opportunistic taxa, and a decrease in biomass. She will be evaluating the response of benthic organisms to seafood processing waste in Dutch Harbor and Port Valdez. She also predicts a decrease in habitat for higher trophic levels, decrease in water quality, and decrease of available food by removal of a food chain level.

Nicole Swensgard reported on her year of researching how access to the Chena River affects property values in city limits. She floated the Chena slowly to ascertain the exact situation along the river. “Property along the river is valued as an amenity,” Swensgard said. She realized that other places have established vegetated buffers along river corridors and it did not diminish the value of the land. The benefits are reducing erosion and protecting habitats.

Using the GIS database from the Fairbanks North Star Borough website, Swensgard charted that residential land on the river is valued at $4.98 per square foot inside the city limits and $1.86 per square foot outside the city limits. The most interesting part of her study was that vegetated buffer lots are worth the same as riverfront lots both inside and outside the city limits.

She plotted 50 lots adjacent to vegetated buffers and 389 riverfront lots along the Chena River from Fort Wainwright to the mouth of the Chena River. “I found no significant difference in riverfront and vegetated buffer properties along the river, therefore establishing such vegetated buffers would not decrease property values or tax revenues to the community," Swensgard said..

USDA forms Alaska Food Policy Council

By Daniel Consenstein, state executive director, Alaska Farm Service Agency, US Department of Agriculture

Over 95 percent of the food consumed by Alaskans comes from outside Alaska. With the exception of those Alaskans who rely heavily on subsistence fish and game, most Alaskans eat very little food that is grown or produced in Alaska. This reliance on outside sources of food has a huge negative effect on our health, our economy, and our security.

On May 18-19 in Anchorage, a diverse group of Alaskans is coming together to form the Alaska Food Policy Council. This group will take a critical look at our current food system and start thinking about ideas for building a stronger regional system. Most of these stakeholders know that keeping more of our food dollars in Alaska will help create jobs and spur economic development. They know that if Alaska can produce more of its own food, we can build healthier communities and be less vulnerable to food disruptions in times of emergencies.

The long term goals of the Food Policy Council will be to identify barriers to building a viable Alaskan food system, create a strategic plan to address these barriers, and make the necessary recommendations to decision makers to implement this plan. Over the next year, this group will develop an action plan to make Alaska more food secure.

Mark Winne (pictured at left) of the Community Food Security Coalition will provide an overview of “What Is a Food Policy Council?” followed by an expert panel of Alaskans to discuss “Food Issues in Alaska.” During the sessions to follow, stakeholders from across Alaska will have the opportunity to discuss broad statewide food policy and food system issues face to face, with facilitation provided by Winne. Issues such as local food production, processing and distribution, institutional and private sector retail food purchasing, farmers’ markets, community supported agriculture (CSA) and community gardens, farm and environmental protection, subsistence, and food security, will likely be brought to the table.

The meeting is hosted by the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services Obesity Prevention and Control Program, in collaboration with US Department of Agriculture, the Alaska Farm Bureau, the Alaska Division of Agriculture, and the Alaska Center for the Environment. The Obesity Prevention and Control Program received funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention through the Recovery Act to implement this project over an initial two-year period.

For more information about this first meeting of the Alaska Food Policy Council, please contact Diane Peck at 907-269-8447.

SNRAS Professor Milan Shipka (also associate director of the Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station) was invited to address the audience. SNRAS/AFES Managing Editor Deirdre Helfferich and Research Professional Jeff Werner will also attend the meeting.

Further reading:
Food Policy Councils: Lessons Learned by Alethea Harper, Annie Shattuck, Eric Holt-Gimenez, Alison Alkon, and Frances Lambrick, 2009, Institute for Food and Development Policy (PDF)

Friday, May 7, 2010

Leaf print art show opens Monday

SNRAS graduate student Yosuke Okada and art student Adam Ottavi-Schiesl will display their art at the UAF Wood Center through May 31. An opening reception for the show is set for Monday, May 10 from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Wood Center.

The two students collaborated to create chlorophyll prints, artistic photographs imprinted on leaves.

Further reading:

UAF students harness photosynthesis to create unique art, Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, May 7, 2010, by Jessica Hoffman

Science knowledge helps art endeavor succeed, SNRAS Science & News, Feb. 3. 2010

CSA survey results: picking brains and veggies

From left, Rachel Garcia, David Fazzino, Phil Loring
Members of community supported agriculture (CSA) organizations in the Fairbanks area love the quality, taste, freshness, and variety of produce they get in the summer season, according to a survey conducted by the UAF Anthropology Department. The one thing they really want more of? Tomatoes!

David Fazzino, assistant professor; Phil Loring, doctoral candidate; and Rachel Garcia, SNRAS graduate student, presented the results of their work May 6.

Fazzino explained that the conventional approach to agriculture is commodity production, whereas alternative agriculture features such methods as farmers’ markets, school gardens, cooperative markets, crop mobs, CSAs, community gardens, and urban agriculture (rooftop gardens).

The trio based their survey on one conducted in 2000 and published in 2002 by E. Paul Durrenberger, anthropologist at Pennsylvania State University. They used the same software program, Anthropac.

They sent 326 surveys and got 122 back, a 37.4 percent return, which Fazzino was very pleased about. They also surveyed the six participating CSA operators, Calypso Farm, Basically Basil, Dogwood Gardens, Rosie Creek Farm, Spinach Creek Farm, and Wild Rose Farm. Garcia said one CSA got 56.1 percent of its members to respond. Smaller CSAs tended to have higher response rates, she said. More surveys were returned when the CSA owner personally handed the document to the member.

“We learned a lot about the population using CSAs in Fairbanks,” Loring said. “They are well educated with a median income of $75,000 to $99,000, and 97 percent of the respondents were white.” The survey participants were predominantly women.

“The unique thing about this is that payment is up front,” Fazzino said. Consumers pay between $375 to $575 for a summer’s worth of veggies, receiving a box of whatever is ripe each week. Most go to the farm or a pickup point to get their produce.

When buyers pay for the food at the beginning of the season the farmer can plan better and rely less on loans, Loring explained.

Members participate at a variety of levels, with some doing work to lower the cost of their share. “The main way they participate is in their kitchens,” Fazzino said. One question the researchers wanted to know was if people changed their eating habits due to CSA involvement. “We found people tended to eat more produce and eat more variety with the CSA experience,” Fazzino said. “People thought it was exciting to experiment with new foods.”

Through the survey, it was discovered that many participants share their food boxes with friends and family.

The reasons people join CSAs lined up perfectly with the Durrenberger study: to get better food, support farmers, help the environment, and get cheaper food.

CSAs are sometimes criticized for not addressing social justice, Loring said. Some even say they are contributing to the global food crisis. “It’s a very potent discourse,” Loring said.

On the up side, Fazzino said CSAs really go along with the notion of true choice. “There is a true transformative capacity when the consumer gets involved,” he said. “CSAs are the gateway drug to alternative food systems. A lot has to do with changing people’s ideas about food systems.”

Loring said CSAs also give the opportunity to create transparency in the actual costs of food production. Garcia commented, “Farmers feel sometimes their prices are too low.”

The researchers will eventually share their results with the growers. “So far they have said the data looks good,” Garcia said.

Further reading:

Loring recommends The Farm as Natural Habitat: Reconnecting Food Systems with Ecosystems, by Dana L. Jackson and Laura L. Jackson

Last Frontier Locavores, list of CSAs in Alaska

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Anthropology colloquium addresses community supported agriculture

Today (May 6, 2010) at 3:30 p.m. the UAF Anthropology Department will host a colloquium addressing community supported agriculture. David V. Fazzino II, assistant professor of anthropology; Phil Loring, anthropologist in cross-cultural studies; and Rachel Garcia, SNRAS graduate student; will talk about CSAs in Fairbanks, Alaska.

The trio examined CSAs in Alaska from the perspective of the CSA member. Their research began in spring 2009 when they met with CSA operators to distribute a survey to their members. Six CSAs in Fairbanks participated in the study with 122 of 326 CSA members (37.4 percent of CSA members) returning the surveys. The lecture will focus on the effects of CSA participation on reported dietary change and overall satisfaction with the CSA experience from the perspective of the consumer.

The event will be held in Room 304, Eielson Building.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Farm-to-School Act passes

Rep. Carl Gatto beams with pleasure as Gov. Sean Parnell signs House Bill 70 into law on May 4. (photo courtesy of Mat-Su Borough School District)
Alaska Agriculture Day, May 4, was the day Gov. Sean Parnell signed House Bill 70 into law. The Farm-to-School Act, sponsored by Rep. Carl Gatto, heightens the presence of locally-grown produce in Alaska schools and creates opportunities for students to be involved in agriculture.

The signing ceremony took place at Palmer High School. SNRAS was represented by Professor Milan Shipka (associate director of the Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station) and Associate Professor Norman Harris (administrator of the Palmer Center for Sustainable Living). Also on hand were Mat-Su farmers, Alaska Grown and Farm Bureau representatives, and FFA students. Don Berberich, Palmer High School agriculture teacher, said, "This is the most exciting thing that has happened in ag education since it was introduced at Palmer High thirty-two years ago. Agriculture opens endless opportunities for students."

"I am so pleased to be able to sign this bill into law and I wanted to come to Palmer to do this," Gov. Parnell said. "Mat-Su offers the state so many agricultural opportunities."

Rep. Gatto said, "I am delighted to be at Palmer for the signing of this bill. We got a 60-0 vote. His (referring to Gov. Parnell) vote is 61. I appreciate Gov. Parnell supporting this bill and signing it into law."

In his sponsor statement, Rep. Gatto explained that the Farm-to-School Act is similar to programs proposed in several states. Its intent is to strengthen links between state agriculture and state food procurement in schools, expand local markets, improve nutrition, and benefit the environment.

Alaska FFA Advisor Jeff Werner was excited about the bill's passage. "It allows instructional programs in high schools to teach production agriculture and grow products in greenhouses at the schools to be used in the schools or to be sold to support the programs," he said. "It also creates opportunities for local farmers to employ high school students with experience in the agriculture industry. It will motivate communities to teach agriculture education for self-sufficient and self-reliant communities."

The program will be administered through the Department of Natural Resources.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Today is Alaska Agriculture Day!

In recognition of Alaska Agriculture Day, Carol Lewis, pictured at left, wrote the following guest opinion.

If Alaska is truly going to address food security we must first acknowledge that food comes from farms, not shelves.

Separated from the country’s bread basket by thousands of miles, we are in a precarious position concerning food and the time has come to embrace agriculture rather than ignore it.

It’s Alaska Agriculture Day and while some of us think about the production of food every day, others find it easy to shrug off those concerns as trivial. As long as there is food at the super store, why worry?

If we wait a day or two to worry, after trucks, planes and barges are stopped en route to Alaska due to weather or fuel crisis or natural disaster and food on store shelves is diminishing, will it be time enough for everyone to suddenly show an interest in agriculture?

It’s true that in this state we cannot be self sufficient in supplying all our own food for all Alaskans but we can improve and increase our food supply; we can enter export markets for specialty items and we can produce local food nearly anywhere in the state, from the most urban areas to the most remote sites.

The vision for Alaska’s agricultural industry is locally focused and diversified so it can supplement the food supply by substituting locally grown food for imports and concentrating on selected export markets compatible with the current handling and transportation infrastructure.

If the vision is to happen, there must be a marketing strategy with a statewide outlook that is a mix of supply-driven markets where producers provide high quality products for consumers, and demand-driven markets where consumers let producers know the characteristics of the products they want to buy. The ideal supply chain for these two different types of markets includes local wholesalers, food brokers, retailers, farmers’ markets, and direct sales such as community supported agriculture (CSA) enterprises.

Success of this vision for Alaska’s agricultural industry emphasizes private sector ownership and support to increase agricultural production. The public sector can help through research, education, and outreach that concentrates on techniques and technologies that will help farmers, producers, and processors. It can also help by providing a support network for entrepreneurship via cooperatives, farmers’ markets, brokers and retailers, loan programs that are tailored for agricultural enterprises that are often high-risk, and appropriate policy, regulation, and zoning to encourage agricultural production.

Finally, educating the consumer about the advantages of purchasing locally grown and processed products is of utmost priority. Foods shipped long distances are often not ripe when harvested and chemicals are used to enhance storage and shipping times. There is no doubt that locally produced foods are fresher. Bite into a carrot you grow yourself or pick up at a farmers’ market and tell me it doesn’t have more flavor than one from the grocery store plastic bag. Fuel costs for food shipped long distances add to the price of imported food. Additionally, local farmers and producers benefit from local purchases and the dollars spent in purchasing locally produced foods stay in the local economy.

It’s often mentioned that Alaska imports 95 percent of its food but the truth is we don’t really know exactly what that figure is. UAF School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences is conducting a statewide survey to pin that number down. We want to clarify what is being produced in state and who and where the producers are. This will give us a base to understand consumer demands and community needs. As we conduct this research we have a greater goal in mind: to help the entrepreneurs of Alaska’s agricultural industry answer the call for increased food production. We at UAF in the School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences, the Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station, and the Cooperative Extension Service can then better direct our research, education, and outreach to assist those in the food production industry in Alaska. The information we obtain will also allow us to be more effective in our work with municipal, state, and federal governments to provide relevant policies and regulations, marketing assistance, quality control, and vehicles for financial assistance. All in all, the future is bright for Alaska agriculture.

Enjoy Alaska Agriculture Day. Plant some seeds, sign up for a share in community supported agriculture, support the new retail outlets that are handling local products, or visit a farmers’ market.

(Carol Lewis is dean of the UAF School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences and director of the Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station.)