What did you eat for your last meal?
Now for the second, and probably harder question: Where did that food come from?
Perhaps you harvested it by finishing the Kenai or growing veggies in your backyard, but most likely it came from the grocery store. And unfortunately, it probably came from someplace other than Alaska. All too often our food options are almost exclusively sourced from Outside. Finding food grown or produced locally can be tough.
The statistics prove it: In 1955, 55% of the food eaten by Alaskans was grown in the state. Today, that number is 5%. That means 95% of the food Alaskans consume is grown outside the state and brought in via barge, plane, or truck.
When my husband and I started Alaska Artisanal, it was a small effort at closing that gap. There's a variety of Alaskan small businesses and farms growing and producing all sorts of amazingly delicious products, and we wanted to bring those foods together to create truly Alaskan baskets. By investing in local producers' products, we've kept money in the local food economy as well as forged deep relationships with our vendors.
We're proud that we can provide increased sales and exposure for these small businesses in our community
Once we started marketing the brand, it was clear to us that Alaskans want to support other Alaskans. We're conditioned to help each other out and many will opt for a local joint over a chain. But in the modern world, we're getting busier. Eating locally is increasingly difficult when it's not convenient or easy to find local options. What we've seen from our customer base is that we all have limited time and Alaskans just can't always seek out a local option if they have to go out of their way for it.
Alaskans still value keeping it local, though, so a key to increasing consumption of local foods is to provide easy access for Alaskan consumers looking for locally made products. With that in mind, we've just launched a new online marketplace, Grow & Gather, that provides all sorts of Alaskan made foods from small producers around the state. Consumers continue to turn to the internet for product shopping. Providing an easy, 24-hour option with free shipping has been a very successful model for us, and we feel an online marketplace is a burgeoning market for providing locally made products to consumers across Alaska.
The number of farmer's markets state-wide is also encouraging. They can be found in a variety of neighborhoods and at various days and times which increases accessibility to a wider portion of the population. On summer Saturdays, in Anchorage alone there are five markets spread throughout the city, giving numerous Alaskans close and convenient access to local, farm fresh foods.
Many locally owned restaurants are working closely with farmers and producers to use local ingredients in their offerings. Torchon Bistro in Anchorage buys hogs from Copper Center, then uses the whole animal from snout to tail in different dishes served up each night. More and more restaurants are sourcing their greens and other vegetables from area farmers, and some, like South in Anchorage, have created their own garden to grow herbs used in their dishes and cocktails.
"Many locally owned restaurants are working closely with farmers and producers to use local ingredients in their offerings."
"YOUR WALLET IS POWERFUL. USE IT TO BOOST ALASKA'S FOOD ECONOMY."
Alaska still has a long way to go in changing the food landscape in the state, but national trends show that consumers want and will seek out local food options. In our anecdotal experience, even at a small increased cost, consumers will still opt for the local option if available. Our customers ask informed questions about how each product was sourced, showing a growing interest in where food comes from. We have the opportunity to change the way food is grown and consumed in the state, at the benefit to our economy.
From our experience as entrepreneurs and as consumers, here's what I believe are a few key ways we can all work to incorporate local foods into our professional and personal lives:
1. Consider using more locally grown and made foods in your business. Consumers are increasingly more savvy and want to know where their food comes from. In the food industry, small shifts such as using locally grown produce when in season adds flavor, drives the local economy, and draws in this emerging market craving local foods. If you're not in the food industry, for your next event think about using a caterer who incorporates local ingredients, which can turn into a marketable experience and an additional way to connect with your clients.
2. Use local foods as a marketing tool. Local foods are trending on social media, and businesses can reap those rewards. In Alaska, the hashtag #akfood has a lot of traction for dishes incorporating local ingredients. We find our followers are more likely to interact on posts of meals we've created from local foods, especially when we include recipes and tag the vendors we purchased the products from.
3. Partner up. Even if you're not in the food industry, partnering with a local farmer or producer gives you access to the market and perhaps a new customer base. The Museum of the North in Fairbanks hosted an event where local chefs cooked a variety of dishes featuring local barley, birch syrup, and beer, all while surrounded by the museum's displays and art. It was a sold out event and drew in a younger, local crowd that by national averages is less likely to patronize museums.
4. Remember your wallet is powerful, so use it to help boost Alaska's food economy. Alaskans spend 2.5 billion dollars on food every year. If every person in the state participated in the Alaska Farm Bureau's $5 a Week Challenge by spending just $5 weekly on locally grown and produced foods, the local food economy would increase by almost 200 million dollars in one year. Additionally, farmers and producers will be more likely to expand operations, thus increasing supply and diversity in the market. This in turn would make Alaskan grown and made foods more accessible throughout the state, and give those in the food industry more purchasing power.
5. Become a local food advocate. When eating out, ask where their food comes from and patronize restaurants that source food locally. Do your grocery shopping at the farmer's markets (there are multiple year round markets in Anchorage) and ask your favorite grocer to stock more local products. Tell others about the importance of eating local.
If we all show an interest personally and professionally in more food grown in the state, we have the opportunity to innovate Alaska's food system to one in which our local growers and producers thrive. That's good for the health of both our bodies and our economy.
Alaska Artisanal &Grow & Gather Co-Founder and President
Her love for food goes beyond the plate, bringing her passion for
cooking and knowledge working in farms and gardens to business