Starting this season, Kenai Peninsula communities will have the unique option of shopping for local produce, seafood and handmade goods online.
The Kenai Peninsula Food Hub Pilot Program website will launch Friday in Homer and May 12, in Soldotna, and will likely run through early autumn, or until yields are diminished.
“It is much more efficient than having farmers who are dealing with purchasers dealing with middlemen dealing with shippers,” said Steve Dahl, volunteer coordinator for the central Kenai Peninsula sales. “You’ve got to admit that is a long way for a can of beans to go.”
More simply put: “It is an efficient way to get locally grown food to local people,” he said.
The system’s process is drafted on the website, kenaifoodhub.com.
Three days each week, Saturday through Monday in Homer and Friday through Sunday in Soldotna, are set for shoppers to place orders through the website. Producers then have one day to gather and prepare their deliveries. Sellers then drop off their products Wednesday at the Kachemak Community Center in Homer, and Tuesday at Christ Lutheran Church in Soldotna, and an hour later buyers will pick up their purchases.
A separate fee is imposed for producers or consumers, but all members can buy or sell from one another.
Dahl said the food hub may appeal to people who prefer options other than perusing grocery store aisles, and will hopefully make finding locally grown, harvested or processed products easier for those who look for them. Buying food close to home also reduces a person’s carbon footprint, and helps reduce wasted items, which may perish on a barge en route to Alaska, he said.
The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services could not find information on food waste at the state level for their 2012 Food System Assessment report, but wrote waste does take place at every stage in the food system and that nationwide about 27 percent of food supplies were lost at some point between where they were grown and where they were consumed.
Dahl said store-bought produce is only a shadow of the original crop. Buying fruits and vegetables that are in season, tasting what the harvest is supposed to taste like, is not something many people are used to, especially in Alaska, he said.
The Alaska Food Policy Council reports that a combination of economic factors led to the transition of residents living subsistently or growing their own food to buying food from grocery stores, citing the 2014 Building Food Security in Alaska report commissioned by the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. Farming in Alaska is expensive because of the higher cost of living. Labor is also more expensive, and infrastructure is usually shipped in over long distances, according to the report.
“With the advent of air travel and more efficient trucking it became less expensive to haul food from the Lower 48 to Alaska than to grow it here,” according to the report.
The food policy council also states the remedy to nearly total dependence on Outside goods is community-led initiatives potentially supplemented by more state assistance.
Robbi Mixon, local foods coordinator for Cook Inletkeeper, which is hosting the website, said she is hopeful the new service may make sustainable impacts.
“People could start to pay attention to how far most food travels to get to supermarkets in Alaska,” Mixon said. “Over 95 percent of our food is imported, having great impacts on the environment, not to mention taste and nutritional content.”
Right now between 10 and 15 producers are signed on for the launch, Mixon said. All sellers are vetted through an application process and must have relevant permits, she said. She said she hopes the food hub will attract restaurants in addition to families or individual buyers, and has added incentives for anyone buying bulk, including a 10 percent discount for orders more than $150.
“When planning the Food Hub, we took into account input from a variety of user groups,” Mixon said. “It’s important we have everyone’s interests in mind to make an impact and have buy-in from the community.”
While the focus right now is mostly on Soldotna and Homer, Mixon and her team is working to make connections in Seldovia. Ferry service doesn’t resume until May, but she is coordinating a drop-off site for residents that order items from the food hub, she said.
The food hub’s volunteer advisory council that developed policy and headed marketing for the project consisted of farmers and members of organizations focused on sustainability in Homer, Seldovia and the central Kenai Peninsula, and had few local resources to draw from. The group looked mostly at examples from the Lower 48.
Mixon said she knows of only one other food hub that is up and running in the state, operated in Fairbanks.
Heidi Chay, district manager for the Kenai Soil and Water Conservation District and member of the advisory council, headed a food hub pilot program in 2012. In a previous Clarion interview, Chay said the software used in this process is much improved. Only four farms and one dozen members had access to the previous project.
The nonprofit start-up is funded by a two-year U.S. Department of Agriculture grant secured by Rachel Lord, the clean water program director of Cook Inletkeeper, who is also on the advisory council.
Mixon said she hopes operations will eventually become self-sufficient. All products sold through the site will be marked up 25 percent.
“Our goal is to develop a sustainable pricing strategy that will be fair to producers and keep the food hub successful beyond the USDA grant funded period,” according to the website.
The new service is more of a supplemental opportunity for communities to buy local.
“It’s not our intention to compete with physical markets; we are aiming to create new marketing and selling opportunities, as well as buying opportunities,” Mixon said. “Not everyone that supports local has the time to attend a farmers market.”
Producers are strongly encouraged through the site’s policies to disclose all farming practices, or how livestock or fish are raised. Disclosure is requested so consumers can make knowledgeable choices about what they are buying. It is also asked that producers incorporate as few Outside ingredients as possible for value-added items.
Dahl said it is likely that producers would be forthcoming about their use of chemicals.
“It is a bit of a fashion statement, don’t you know,” he said.