Will hold public workshop in February

A team of local residents is launching an effort to collect information about food production, storage and supply in the Upper Lynn Canal.

The effort is part of a project, led by the Homer-based Alaska Food Policy Council and funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to improve food production and security across Alaska.

Haines Economic Development Corporation (HEDC) partnered last year with the council to form an Upper Lynn Canal food policy planning “node,” which is composed of three Haines residents and one Skagway resident. (Tony Strong of Klukwan was also a node member, but he died last week.)

The node will host a public workshop in February to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the region’s food system. A facilitator from the Alaska Food Policy Council will run the meeting, which will be one of 14 around the state and will help the council develop a 10-year food strategy for the state.

“This asset mapping workshop is going to help us get clear on what our community needs,” said node leader Erika Merklin. “We have local and regional assets we might be overlooking.”

A community “food asset,” Merklin said, is any resource, service or skill set related to the food system, like a local farm, commercial and subsistence fishing or a garage for food storage. “Assets aren’t just about agriculture. They’re political, social, economic,” Merklin said, adding that residents from all industries could have important contributions to the discussion.

Merklin, who coordinates the Mosquito Lake Victory Garden, is working toward establishing a local food policy council and a “food hub,” or a centralized facility for food storage and distribution, that would be eligible for U.S. Department of Agriculture grants. In 2020, the Haines Borough Assembly set aside $100,000 for food security through federal coronavirus relief funding. That money went to the Salvation Army and Haines Senior Center, after the assembly dismissed proposals from Merklin for $78,000 for the Victory Garden and from Sue Chasen, who requested $12,000 on behalf of an HEDC food security task force to inventory the borough’s food storage needs. The HEDC task force ultimately morphed into the Alaska Food Policy Council node.

As the CVN reported at the time, the assembly’s decision showed disagreement about the community’s needs regarding food security and whether borough officials should focus on putting food directly in the hands of vulnerable residents or on increasing local agriculture and establishing a more robust local food system.

Agriculture was a hot topic during the 2021 assembly election campaign, with candidates Tyler Huling and Brenda Josephson both pointing to the agricultural sector as a place for growth and diversity in Haines’ economy.

“Haines has the potential as the bread basket of Southeast Alaska to be an agricultural center. There is economic potential here. There are supply chain issues that we’re running into constantly. A community that can take care of itself is in much better shape than if (it’s) dependent on the outside world,” Chasen told the CVN.

The Victory Garden, which wrapped up its second growing season this fall, was recently awarded a $9,990 grant from the Alaska Division of Agriculture.

“We’ve tried different local avenues, and we continue to strengthen our local connections, and now we’re becoming aligned with statewide mentorship and support,” Merklin said in an email to the CVN. “With this next step, we will be positioned to get USDA grants for planning around creating a food hub as well as a regional food council.”

Merklin started an Upper Lynn Canal food policy council Facebook group to promote discussion about the area’s food assets and the possibility of creating a local food policy council. She said anyone interested in the issue is welcome to join the group.

The food asset mapping workshop will be held via Zoom on Feb. 12 at 3 p.m.