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Food is a Shaman: Part 1. A Two-Part Commentary on a Community Based Externship in Sitka, Alaska

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Keren Zhu
May 16, 2021

Never did I imagine that moving tons of colorful produce from big boxes to smaller boxes in an organized chaos would feel like ripe grapes bursting against my palette, and hot noodle soup waking me up after a few days of chill. Engaging in community partnered research at a food co-op in an island town in Southeast Alaska has made me reflect on food security for small and isolated communities fighting against the twin impacts of a global pandemic and climate change, and their implications for our mode of consumption and the role of infrastructure at large.

My Ph.D. program in policy analysis sent me to a Sitka for a six-week externship, to help a local food co-op document the organization’s history, operational practices and challenges and identify pathways forward. I am also seeking to identify good practices that are transferrable to other small, isolated rural communities facing similar food security challenges.

In this two-part series, I will reflect on my community-embedded observations of local food challenges in Sitka, Alaska (Part 1), and discuss how local food solutions offer “glocal” potentials in resolving food security challenges across the United States and other parts of the world (Part 2).

The unique challenges Sitkans face in getting healthy and affordable food hit me at the local grocery store on my first day in town: a single avocado goes for $6; a package of tofu runs $7, and prices are generally higher than even Whole Foods in Los Angeles. While Sitka’s grocery costs are to some degree consistent with the rest of Alaska due to low agriculture production and high cost of transportation, its remote island location, compared with other rural communities in Southeast Alaska, means extra freight charges, further compounding grocery costs.

Between 2001 and 2017, food costs in Sitka rose 231%, and are currently 31% higher than those in Juneau, the capital city of Alaska. Since the shutdown of a pulp mill as a key economic pillar in the 1990s, Sitka has since transitioned into an environmentally appealing fishing town spearheaded with innovative healthcare, thriving tourism, and vibrant non-profits. The gentrification makes the community more tolerant to monopolistic grocery stores’ higher price markup, and high shipping, labor, operational costs drove food even prices higher. In addition, food shipped from Seattle takes more than a week to arrive in Sitka with the current two-shift-a-week barge transport system, and for food spoilage concerns, large grocers tend to carry less perishable produce of limited variety. In struggling to use same amount of earning to cover a rapidly growing food budget, Sitkans face an increasingly dire food security problem.

Local food cooperatives and buying clubs emerged from residents’ desire for healthy, affordable, and diverse food options, and offer organic alternatives and community engagement. By purchasing food in bulk from a wholesaler, the Sitka co-op avoids middleman markup, while offering a wide variety of choices. Moreover, a group of Sitkans regularly volunteer at the Coop’s distribute day, an activity that brings residents together, swapping recipes and gardening advice.

For me, working with the Coop has forced me to rethink my relationship with food. Born and raised in Beijing, with work experience in Geneva, and now doing a Ph.D in Los Angeles, I have lived in metropolitan areas far from nature for almost my entire life. With fast food on every street corner and commercial grocery stores so conveniently set up, I haven’t thought a lot about where food comes from. Shocked to see McDonald as the only fast food chain store in town, volunteering at the local food co-op triggered further confusion. I reeled at first by the organized chaos of the Coop’s food distribution day, and volunteers were suspicious of my note taking without helping out. Eventually, it was actively engaging in volunteer work and talking to a wide range of community organizations that make me part of them. Chitchat with volunteers and aroma of berries taught me to appreciate the joy of harvest and gave me a sense of community.

In one strand of native Alaskan culture, a shaman serves as a link to the world of spirits and tried to restore balance and harmony between this world and the spirit world. Food and other natural resources should be harvested and appreciated, rather than exploited and consumed. I’m surprised that such an obvious truth has escaped me for so many years. In drafting my case study of the food co-op, I kept resisting the urge to use words such as “production” and “consumption” in describing our relationship with food. Yet to unlearn the exploitative and industrialized language we use to describe food is as hard as fixing our current food system’s effects on health, wellness, food access, waste, the environment, culture, and economies.

The conundrum of food reflects the broader challenges we face in transitioning from a culture that values industrialization to one that prioritizes ecological conservation. Like a shaman, food should be a solution to restoring balance and harmony to our planet. Can we, after strenuous struggles, develop policies that cultivate more organic relationships between people and with nature, and offer the world sustainable nourishment?


Author: Keren Zhu ([email protected], @Zhu_Keren) is a PhD candidate at the Pardee RAND Graduate School. Her research interests include global infrastructure and international development. Prior to joining RAND, she was the international affairs manager at Research and Development International, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, where she promoted international cooperation and produced policy research to advance the Belt and Road Initiative.

Her thoughts do not necessarily reflect those of the RAND Corporation, Pardee RAND, or RAND’s research sponsors.

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