Growing Healthy Food in a Remote Alaskan Town

This Q&A is the first of a new interview series, “Taking the Temperature of Public Health." Many LiveStories users are experts in public health; this series puts the spotlight on their efforts to help their communities. 

Lloyd Platson, Staff Development Coordinator and Prevention Coalition Director at Sitka Counseling and Prevention Services Inc., created a story about his community’s efforts to grow local, healthy food, in part to combat high rates of diabetes and obesity. Lloyd spoke to LiveStories about his organization’s work.

LiveStories: Can you talk to me about what inspired this project?

Lloyd: Probably the biggest issue we face in southeast Alaska is, we live on an island. Food gets shipped by barges. So that increases the cost and the unreliability of food. It could be a week to a few weeks before the food gets here from the lower 48. Even if the food was healthy to begin with, sitting on the barge that long and then getting into the stores, it lost some of its healthy qualities and attractiveness.

So in 2010, at the Sitka Health Summit we pulled together a core team to start looking at the issue of locally growing healthy foods.

Planting community gardens in Sitka, Alaska.

Planting community gardens in Sitka, Alaska.

Can you tell more specifically about some of the health risks?

In 2015 we did a really in-depth community survey, looking at food. And we discovered that we have fairly high diabetes and obesity rates in the community, especially among the Alaskan native population.

The outcome was just really a strong recognition of not having healthy local choices. Anytime that you are shipping long distance, I think you kind of look to ship things that are easy to consume—and a lot of those things aren't as healthy for people.

What are the kinds of foods that you hope to supply your community with?

Part of it depends on what will grow here—certain things won't grow, but a lot of vegetable type things grow really well. We have a lot of kale. Potatoes, peas, a lot of the leafy vegetables grow really well. Rhubarb grows really well here. One of the health summit ideas involved planting fruit trees throughout the community. That’s part of that process also.

Can you speak to how the gardens have helped your community members with cost?

Another outgrowth that the initial health summit was developing a farmer's market that allowed people to bring their extra produce. The prices were still a little bit higher than buying non-healthy food. Non-healthy stuff is always cheaper. So we started looking at individuals who had less discretionary income—being able to accept the ABT cards, the SNAP program cards.

Another grant was written to help offset the cost of produce for the people that are lower income levels. So if you are on the SNAP program, for every dollar you spent at the farmer's market, you got an additional dollar's worth of produce.

It seems like this is a true community effort with so many different players coming together for this really important cause.

Yeah it's been really interesting. The school district provided property for the community garden. And we have personal gardens, and then one of the local churches here has a pretty big area in the back of their property where they allow the Sitka Local Foods Network, which also grew out of the Sitka Health Summit. That's where most of the produce from the farmer's market comes from. This past year they had to close that down, but then other churches stepped up to provide space for the community gardens, so it's been a really nice community effort.

The Sitka Conservation Society started a "Fish to Schools" program that brought fish to the lunch menu for all the schools. What's so neat about this is that local fisherman come and talk to the students. I think nowadays, people lose track of how they're connected to their food. So by having the fisherman come in and talk about how they catch the salmon, the processing, and how it ends up being on the table in the school cafeterias—there is a greater connection and respect, I think, for the food.

The Sitka Local Foods Network at the community's farmers market.

The Sitka Local Foods Network at the community's farmers market.

I want to learn more about how you got involved in this project and the connection between Sitka Counseling and Prevention Services and this project.

A lot of our community organizations have started working together more and more. Sitka Counseling is part of our prevention efforts in terms of getting people out and connected to the community, connected to the earth again, to their food supply. I just happened to start sitting on the Sitka Health Summit board and got involved in it.

As I was personally looking at it, I started looking at it from more of an equity lense. We have all these gardens but still they were fairly costly for individuals. Especially when you are deciding between, “can I get enough to feed my family for a week with unhealthy food” versus paying a little bit more and not having as much food when you need to fill your children's bellies. So we started to look at equity and the kind of health disparities that come along with that.

What has been one of the most rewarding parts of this project?

One of the old things that always goes through my head is that we are very resource-rich and you have all these people who really have a passion for healthy food, healthy environment. It goes beyond the food--we are looking at how plastic bags impact our environment and how it impacts our food system. We are discovering that more and more of our fish have plastic particles in their system. So it goes way beyond just the food. So all of this is going on but there wasn't a really good coordination to the whole process and one of my gifts is looking at how we can pull systems together, build a strong coalition, and that really takes a period of four or five years in order for the system to build enough so that it's really effective.

So that's kind of my passion--community organization around a specific issue. And for me up here, traditional foods, especially with our high Alaskan Native population and having that population lost a lot of their rituals and traditions and all that centered around food. Sitka is a very health conscious place to begin with but we just lacked a lot of coordination. So my passion is building that.

What kind of feedback have you received from community members? Maybe people who aren't necessarily working with you but who have benefitted from the gardens.

People have expressed appreciation about having access to local healthy foods. I think the willingness of people to collaborate and come together a bit more now is an expression of that. That they see kind of a synergy happening. And beyond that, the city administration is looking at being able to create more space for gardens for all people here and actually move it into more agricultural type options.

Can you tell me more about your involvement with 100 Million Healthier Lives and ‘story swaps’?

It was just a group of people working through the LiveStories platform that came together, shared their stories, and then kind of gave feedback to each other and ideas on how to improve their stories. It was very helpful, because when you are building your own story there are things that you may not see and connections that are there and questions that other people come up with when they read your story.

So I think the process was really good in terms of getting the feedback and also listening to other people's stories. There were other people who were focused on gardens and healthy foods and some of the things that they were doing I was like oh wow that's a good addition to what we're doing. So I think that was really powerful in terms of just getting different perspectives and feedback.

LiveStories charts highlight the challenge of getting fresh, healthy food in Sitka.

LiveStories charts highlight the challenge of getting fresh, healthy food in Sitka.

What drew you to LiveStories?

It was part of the 100 Million Healthier Lives process. When I started doing it and going through the technical support, I was like, wow, this is really powerful stuff. The resources that were available, the feedback that's available, I got so excited about it actually. I've been trying to get more community members engaged and at least aware of the power of it.

I'm curious about some of the charts that are in your story. Where was that data from?

I started looking at the cost of living in different places and putting that together and putting that in there. Then I started looking at specific costs of specific foods. Comparing Sitka to Anchorage to Juneau to Seattle to Portland.

Is there anything else you want to add?

I could see so much power for a community, if the community was part of the platform. Especially now with the city administration coming in and starting to look at how can we increase our agricultural type land-use in our community. How one thing we do with personal gardens fits in with what we do with community gardens, and how that fits in with the "Sitka Kitch," and how does that fit into healthy foods at schools—and so linking all of that stuff is an area I d like to see us go.

I think the story format fits very well, especially into our Alaskan native culture. That's how knowledge takes place—through storytelling. So it taps really well into some of the traditional parts of our community.   


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