PALMER — As a state that imports as much as 90 percent of its food, Alaska would be a logical choice for one of the Environmental Protection Agency’s “Local Foods, Local Places” 27 destinations.
And as to which Alaska city would be optimum, Palmer, with its thriving downtown farmers market scene — not to mention the world’s largest cabbages — was a natural fit. On Tuesday and Wednesday, national, regional and local experts occupied the train depot brainstorming ideas to improve the area’s food security and its residents’ opportunities to make sound food choices.
“The people in Palmer are excited about agriculture and proud of their agricultural heritage and have done a good job building on strengths,” said Geoff Alexander, representing the EPA’s Washington D.C. office. “Surely, in Alaska, as far as food scarcity, it’s really high. It really adds importance to food security and gives people more of a chip on their shoulder. They really want to maximize every opportunity they have… the consequences are right in front of you.”
There were 340 cities nationwide that applied to be part of the program, and the individual most credited with throwing Palmer’s hat in the ring was Grow Palmer director Jan Newman.
“We feel pretty blessed to have all these federal and private parties up here to help us build a coalition that, collaboratively, can come together to see happen what we want to happen with our food system,” Newman said. “Palmer is definitely the breadbasket of Alaska. A majority of farmland is available and we have incredible tillage, but that farmland is slowly being gobbled up by (development).”
Nearing the end of day two of the workshop, which culminated in the harvesting of two days of brainstorming splayed along the walls on butcher paper coalesced into a tight, cohesive and workable strategy, Newman was encouraged by what she’d seen.
“(Tuesday) night we all agreed we need more farmers on smaller active parcels — we need more farmers in Alaska to produce more food in Alaska,” Newman said. “We need to build the agricultural identity of Palmer in different arenas — getting more local food into restaurants and into households, particularly of low income households… Hospitals should have more local food; schools should have more local food. We need to create that identity of Palmer, and also in tourism, we can build a food identity.”
Erica Heller came from Denver on invitation from the EPA, representing the Progressive Urban Management Associates, of which she’s vice president.
“Food brings in so many people from the community on so many different levels, from the personal to the big picture,” Heller said. “The community chooses what it’s going to work on, who’s going to do what, and start to really get an action plan to move the community forward and move forward with a shared vision. With a shared vision, they’re more able to move forward and seek funding.”
Newman sees the opportunity for a renaissance of agriculture in a state that just a few decades ago produced at least half of its own food.
“Palmer is the only town in the state that grew from agriculture,” Newman said. “Everything grows here. Maybe we don’t grow watermelon and only a small amount of corn, but we have a pretty diverse group of crops that can grow.”
As for Alexander, he’s in no rush to get back to the Beltway.
“The first thing you notice is how beautiful it is,” he said, noting he made sure to get his picture taken with Palmer’s giant cabbage sculpture. “In fact, I’m taking a few days to stay after this.”
The 27 partner communities for the EPA’s 2016 “Local Food, Local Places” are:
High Point, North Carolina
Keeseville, New York
Lake Village, Arkansas
Mission, South Dakota
Passaic, New Jersey
Rainelle, West Virginia
Walterboro, South Carolina