Grocery store shelves in some Southeast Alaska communities have been empty lately.
With reduced ferry service because of budget cuts to the Alaska Marine Highway System, shipments of groceries to communities like Angoon have been rarer than usual.
“We’ve been running out,” said City of Angoon Mayor Joshua Bowen in a phone interview Thursday. “We’ve had empty shelves. I’m sure everyone’s seen all the Facebook photos and all that.”
Bowen said a landing craft was expected Thursday to bring both food and equipment to fix a broken ramp that would prevent ferries from docking in Angoon even if they were currently running to the Admiralty Island village. He said it’s hoped the ramp will be quickly fixed, but that won’t bring immediate change.
“We don’t have any ferries anyway until March 5,” Bowen said.
Stepping up to help
In the meantime, work is underway to provide help from Juneau.
Debra Gerrish, a Juneau resident who heard about the need of smaller Southeast communities from a woman who goes to her Douglas Community United Methodist Church, said in a phone interview she is attempting to organize food shipments to Angoon, Kake and Hoonah.
Gerrish said she made shipments last week and wants to continue the effort.
“I felt very happy inside,” Gerrish said. “I don’t know these people, but I know their life is going to be better.”
She said anyone interested in supporting the effort could call her at 789-3236, and if they’re unable to donate money to shipping food to other communities, Juneau’s food pantries need donations, too.
Gerrish said she’s opted to work with Salvation Army outposts and send food to them since they have a physical presence in communities and can tell her what foodstuffs are needed. So far, shipping has cost about $450 and food cost about $1,000.
Catherine Dooley, a Lieutenant with the Salvation Army in Kake, said it’s the first time in 18 months she’s seen food shipped their way.
“What I’ve seen is a lot more people have come for food help this year than last year,” Dooley said. “We are in general OK, except people are having a harder time this year.”
John Quinn, a Major with the Salvation Army in Angoon, said the lack of ferry service is negative, but in his estimation food scarcity is about the same as “a bad fish year.”
“This is the new reality,” Quinn said. “And while I and the community appreciate the donations of food supplies that come in, we can’t ever forget that we have a store here and a business, and we have to support it too, or we don’t have a store. Now, we know what the reality is. The ferry is not anything we can count on in any way, shape or form.
“In the meantime, people are flying back and forth when the weather allows and picking up what they can too to stretch everything,” he added.
Gerrish said for her next round of shipments, she is collaborating with the local Salvation Army to come up with a fundraising model that will allow for transparent handling of funds, and with Super Bear Super Market IGA to ship food to places in need.
J.P. Oudekerk, store assistant for Super Bear, said in a phone interview he happened to be the person checking out Gerrish during one of her previous large grocery runs, and he wanted to help out with the project.
“There’s not a whole lot of help for those guys out there getting food,” Oudekerk said.
He said Super Bear would likely be able to help Gerrish find good deals on nonperishables and shipping. Gerrish said she previously shipped via Alaska Seaplanes.
“We’re just working our best to get her the best deal that we can,” Oudekerk said. “It would be much cheaper if they had the ferries going, but we can’t count on that.”
He also said Super Bear will be offering special donation boxes to benefit the communities. Shoppers will be able to fill out slips to make $10 donations. Oudekerk said if someone makes a $10 donation, the goal is for Super Bear to provide about $15 worth of groceries.
Gerrish did not have exact dates for when she hoped to enact her plans, but Oudekerk said donation boxes would be inside Super Bear starting Friday.
Quinn said while the generosity is appreciated, Angoon will ultimately be OK.
“Angoon will survive,” Quinn said. “It’s a community that’s survived bombardments, it’s survived weather, it’s survived for thousands of years.”
• Contact reporter Ben Hohenstatt at (907)523-2243 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @BenHohenstatt