STORY BY BREE KESSLER
The health world was a baffled last month when several recent studies debunked the idea that there is a strong correlation between “food deserts,” generally speaking low-income areas that lack access to healthy foods, and higher rates of obesity. Researchers were shocked to learn that this theory was not entirely true: Even when healthy food choices were available it did not mean that people picked those options. I personally was not shocked. Here in Alaska, we willingly live in a “food tundra.”
I consider myself a healthier than average eater. I couldn’t tell you the last time I eat at a fast food restaurant, I never eat white sugar, and I genuinely love kale. While living in Brooklyn the last few years I was a member not only at the local food co-op, but also received a weekly community supported agriculture (CSA) share and still shopped at several farmer’s markets. In New York, I often thought about how as a non-farmer, a large portion of my week was spent acquiring “local” foods because of the actual time it took to shop and the time spent physically working my required food co-op and CSA shifts.
When I moved to Hawaii my access to food completely changed due to my location. While some staple products certainty were more expensive to purchase at the regular grocery store and the natural food stores were even more expensive than Whole Foods on the mainland, grass-fed Big Island beef and mahi mahi and ahi tuna fish were well-priced and in abundance everywhere. Since my partner and I lived 45 minutes from the nearest grocery store, I only went once a week when already driving to town for work and sometimes I only went shopping every other week. For the most part, we spent Sundays hopping from one farmer’s market to the next picking up collard greens, papaya, mangoes, and breadfruit for the next week. Although I went a whole year without eating blueberries (they were expensive and hard to find in Hawaii), I spent less time shopping than I did in New York and finding the kinds and quality of foods I wanted to eat seemed to be better than anywhere I’ve ever lived. But maybe that’s just because I am a sucker for tropical fruits.
Here in Bettles, Alaska there are five main ways that residents acquire food. First, the majority of full time residents wait until the winter season when the “ice road” exists (the one month a year when one can actually drive into Bettles – for some visuals I will refer you to an episode of “Ice Road Truckers” on the History Network). During this time, residents will haul the majority of their food – especially heavy bulk items from Sam’s Club in Fairbanks. The journey takes about six cold hours from Fairbanks, but can allow one to stock up for months.
During the rest of the year, when one can only fly to Bettles, the food must come via plane. Either one can do the shopping in Fairbanks and take it on the plane as “excess baggage” at 80 cents a pound or call in a “bush order” to one of two grocery stores in Fairbanks and someone in the store will shop for you and bring it to the airline. This method is a pricey one as you have to pay a fee to the grocery store (anything from $20 and up) and pay for the boxes as freight on the plane. The last time I was in town I went shopping myself and spent $900 at the grocery store and then $300 to bring the groceries with me on the plane.
I have never personally phoned in a bush order because I can’t imagine someone else shopping for me. Perhaps this is because there is nothing more I enjoy than a trip to the grocery store (I often will spend hours meandering through them while abroad), but also because it feels like a crap-shoot. You can specify brands to the unknown shopper or even “cheapest jar please” but I don’t trust the system. Our neighbor, who repeatedly uses bush orders, continuously receives grapes even though she has never once asked for them. Why does the mystery shopper insist that she eat grapes?
While in Bettles if you are in desperate need for an ingredient there actually is an option. It is a “bodega like” shop run by an air service. It’s open twenty-four hours and works on the honor system (with a security camera) where you leave your name and item purchased in a notebook on your tab. Sometimes I go over there late at night and read through the notebook to see what other people are purchasing and try to guess what they may have been cooking. It’s like a game show in my mind. In fairness, the store does have iceberg lettuce and tomatoes, but the real highlight, or the most purchased items, are the microwavable Jimmy Dean sausage sandwiches, box pizzas, and rows of candy bars. Most items cost nearly double that which they would normally be although the ice cream sandwiches, for some reason, are a bargain. I always imaged that the owners sell that item at a lost because they love America. We have purchased condensed milk there three times (Key Lime Pie) and eggs (omelets) once.
The next method of grocery acquisition has quickly become the talk of the town: Amazon.com. At some point in the last year, a loophole was created and Amazon began shipping the majority of their grocery items to Alaska and Hawaii (earlier you could not order them at all) and shipping them for the same costs as anywhere else. That means shipping is free if you have Amazon prime (like I do). This revelation is a pretty big deal here. In fact, when the mail comes off the plane in the morning it often is entirely filled with Amazon packages (and Netflix, which is a different story). Recently we received salami, peanut butter, a 25-pound of wheat flour, 6 pounds of yeast, and 15 cans of coconut milk. All free shipping. I was not shocked earlier this week when I heard Amazon had a lower than expected quarter earnings report.
Alas, we come to the final method. A few weeks ago I sat in on a meeting at the Tribal Council Center where some researchers where reporting results from a survey on subsistence activities for villagers in the area. The researchers found that while some people did hunt for moose, few people were (surprisingly) hunting or gathering food in the area. The proverbial “caribou” in the room was amazon.com.
As a self-proclaimed foodie with a “local foods” inclination, I struggle daily with my food options and sources. My partner and I have done our best to grow a garden, which originally seemed easy with twenty-four hours of summer sunlight. Our hope was that we would have enough produce to, at least, get us through a month of two. But thanks to a persistent arctic rabbit, we no longer have a garden to speak of. Next year we will build bigger and better (specifically an enclosed green house).
I waited patiently for blueberry season to come, but somehow missed the majority of it thanks to the poor weather, a bear sighting in the area, and a Netflix queue that just keeps coming. We did manage to collect about a quart worth of berries and quickly watched them be folded into a cobbler, a crumble, and a fish marinade. Twice we have been lucky enough to eat grayling out of the nearby Koyukuk River. In the meantime, I keep waiting for someone to accidentally shoot a bear. Anything can be jerky.
Simply by attending one of our community potlucks that occur quite frequently, one can really begin to connect if and how our food sourcing may affect food culture in Bettles. The majority of individuals bring their “signature dish” to communal meals: usually this means something that one has in abundance (pickles, rice and beans, brownie mix) and can easily be produce in mass quantities without sacrificing it for personal use at a later date. For instance, I would never bring a salad to a potluck. The main item is always (non-grass fed, non local) meat like bratwurst or “reindeer sausage” (it’s not what you think) or hamburgers from Sam’s Club.
On each occasion I hesitantly fill my plate with the potato salad made with heaping amounts of mayo and canned green beans, a burger patty, and grab a glass of lemonade made from a powder mix hoping that I won’t go into insulin shock and too fearful to ask anyone if the food is all gluten and dairy free. Within an hour my stomach will alert me that my meal, as expected, was not allergen free. At home I do my best to prepare foods that won’t contribute to my average 4 pound a week weight gain, but often times we fall back on our standard meal of nachos, beans, and cheese. We have a 10-pound box of “local” chips at our house. Nachos are lightweight and last a long time making them a premium Bettles food choice.
But on days like this past Sunday when we foraged for berries and mushrooms, caught fish in the river, and then seasoned it all with some dill from the garden (apparently it’s the one thing rabbits don’t like) I considered if the residents of Bettles are really were living in a food tundra or are we making a conscious decision to eat as if we had no other choice but to order from Amazon.com? If food deserts aren’t what lead to obesity, it is possible that it’s individual choice, taste, and habit that explain this public health concern?
It is far too easy to reason that Brooklyn and Hawaii have significantly more food options than Alaska. Yes, it is slightly more difficult to get the foods I want here year round, but not impossible nor would it be incredibly difficult to shift into eating a more seasonal diet in Alaska that would include greens, berries, fish, and meat. Adjusting to the season and the landscape is exactly what I’ve done in every other place I’ve lived — like when I didn’t eat blueberries while living in Hawaii. I have often thought couldn’t we create a food co-op or buying club here in Bettles? Or even a working community garden as I once was able to create in the frontier of Detroit. There is tons of open land in Bettles and we could easily grow enough produce to feed our small community. Why isn’t more meat hunted and stored? Is it because less is available (one theory researchers currently are exploring) or is it because the elders are dying out and the new generation isn’t skilled to hunt? A large “back to the land” movement exists in urban areas (canning is so trendy) so why do we move way from this way of life here? But then I remember our potlucks and realize that we indeed are contributing to our own food tundra by not actively changing our food culture from one that takes advantage of Amazon’s lack of knowledge that they are loosing millions of dollars with Alaskan customers to a system that prefers the taste of meanings behind local and seasonal foods.