Following coronavirus-related fears that led to panic buying in Kodiak, the need for on-island food sources became clear. The school district, local organizations and village farms want to help fill that gap.
“It has become painfully obvious that we are not prepared for a supply chain disruption,” said Dan Clarion, founder of Spruce Island Farm in Ouzinkie.
Spruce Island Farm, along with farms in Port Lions, Old Harbor and Larsen Bay, were originally founded five years ago under a grant from the Administration for Native Americans. The farms are each located on lots measuring about 1 acre, leased or gifted by the cities in their respective communities.
Currently, the Spruce Island Farm is owned by the village, while the farms in Port Lions and Larsen Bay are privately owned by their respective tribes. The farm in Old Harbor is owned by non-profit Old Harbor Alliance.
Spruce Island Farm’s acre of arable crop space also houses two hoop houses. Clarion wants to eventually add heating and solar panels to the hoop houses to grow food year round.
He said Ouzinkie had to close down their senior meals program in part because they could not find the ingredients for everything on the menu.
In the city of Kodiak and throughout the borough, residents have noticed gaps in the availability of produce. One week eggs might be missing, and the next it might be meat or flour.
While panic buying is no longer an issue, and many shelves are stocked, production delays to meet demand have caused the meat shelves to be sparse, said Safeway Manager Mike Murray.
This lack of availability of certain items has been felt by residents in the villages, who either come to Kodiak for their groceries or order from the stores and have them delivered. Local organizations and farms are trying to fill the gap.
Staff at Kodiak Area Native Association realized there was an issue with access to food in late February, when they placed Safeway orders for village elders only to face a three-day wait before the orders could be filled. For each subsequent order, the wait times increased.
“We then started shopping (for) those elder orders on our own,” said Greg Zadina, the director of community services at KANA.
KANA delivers food to 243 households in Kodiak’s villages, with each household sometimes receiving multiple boxes of items. Zadina has assembled three to five staff members to help shop, package and deliver the food to Island Air or Andrew Airways for deliveries to the villages, which occur once to twice a month.
KANA’s goal is to “support the communities during the time of uncertainty,” Zadina said.
“It started more as a concern for lack of resources and supply chain,” he said. “We have a food bank here in town for folks that might be struggling and a bigger resource network in Kodiak than in the villages.”
Leon Wallace is the food service coordinator for the Kodiak Island School District. Since schools have closed around the state to curb the spread of the coronavirus, the need for school lunches has increased dramatically, more than doubling in some villages, Wallace said.
The school district sends school lunches in bulk once a week to each village through Island Air Service.
Wallace said the increase in need is related not only to students returning to villages from Kodiak and from off-island cities where they attend school, but also to an increase in the age range of children receiving the lunches. Previously, lunches would be sent to children as young as five years old, but now the age range has expanded to include children as young as one.
“I just walk out to the bus stop, pick up my box for the kids and they have their supplies for the week,” said Melissa Berns of Old Harbor. “The school (lunch) program has been helpful for families who are homeschooling their kid and lower income families who might not have the means to provide those foods for their kids.”
Berns, who sits on the board of the Old Harbor Native Corporation, has family members who were studying in the city of Kodiak and off-island, but who have since moved back home to the village. She said she appreciates the work the school is doing to provide lunches to students in the villages.
Old Harbor has a food bank and a store, and most of its residents live a subsistence lifestyle and share harvests among the community, but food security is still an ongoing issue, Berns noted.
“We have one airline that flies things at 79 cents a pound. A 1-pound can of corn you’re gonna pay $2, and then you tack on the 79 cents,” Berns said. “It puts a strain on people to provide good and healthy options for their families.”
To help supplement the village’s food supply, Nuniaq Farm in Old Harbor is building up capacity to feed the community. Nuniaq Farm has 1 acre of land with potential to expand. The non-profit that runs the farm also has a bison herd and is thinking of raising bees, goats and hogs as well.
“By having the farm, we are able to supplement that a little, but we are still having to ship materials to build up the farm. Once it’s established, all we have to do is ship in seeds,” Berns said. “The garden is looking to produce much more than it has in the past and can provide beyond just elders.”
In Ouzinkie, Spruce Island Farm founder Clarion has been having his children help him prepare for the planting season. He said the pandemic has reaffirmed the need for farms on the island.
“What are we going to do if we have a major disaster and the airport docks are shut down? How will we feed people?” he said. “It became obvious in the last couple months that we don’t have food security in our region.”
Tyler Kornelis, chairman of the Kodiak Food Harvest Co-op, said the disruption in the availability of food “really illustrates both the insecurity we have in regard to food as well as the potential opportunity that can be filled if it’s something that people want to fill.”
That void is what the co-op and the island’s four village farms are trying to fill.
The food co-op buys produce harvested from some of the island’s farms, as well as from farms in Anchorage, but Kornelis said there is not enough supply to meet demand.
“We just don’t have the farming area, the land available to do the infrastructure that’s there,” he said, adding that finding enough people to work the farms is also difficult.
He noted that farming “is not a glamorous job,” and farms are having a difficult time finding the right farmers to help plant the seeds, water and harvest the produce.
“It would be challenging for one person to farm a small-scale farm on their own — not only learning how to do it but also the physical labor involved with it,” Kornelis said.
Clarion said to get the farm in Ouzinkie started for the upcoming season, he primarily needs labor.
But with COVID-19 restrictions on traveling and working in close contact with people outside of the household, the farm has had a lack of volunteers to help prepare for planting season.
“We have a lot of soil to screen,” Clarion said. “The soil that we have was harvested from our old runway. It needs to be screened. It has rocks and huge chunks of peat.”
Kornelis and Clarion agreed that it will take time and a concerted effort to build up the island’s food production capabilities.
“To be fully food secure would take a number of years and really directed efforts,” Kornelis said.
He pointed out that with the island’s short growing season, and without a controlled growing system like hydroponics to meet the demand of people’s consumption patterns — eating produce out-of-season or produce that grows in other climates — it will be difficult for farms and the co-op to fully meet the need.
Clarion, who works on the farm every evening after getting off from his day job working for the village of Ouzinkie, seems optimistic about the future of food security in Kodiak.
“I think we are on the right track,” Clarion said. “If we can come up with the money for the labor, it will go a long way to getting the farm built large enough so it can sustain and help support food security (in Kodiak).”