By Joseph Robertia
Eating a banana for breakfast is a relatively new phenomenon, at least in Alaska. For thousands of years Native Americans, followed by explorers and traders, followed by homesteaders, made up the bulk of their diet from what they could grow, catch, hunt and trade.
In more modern times, the types of foods consumed are not so limited, but eating a tropically grown banana in Alaska means a lot of resources were used to get the fruit this far north. But not everyone believes this type of eating is environmentally friendly or ecologically sustainable.
“There is a misconception that Alaska can’t support its own food needs,” said Saskia Esslinger, of Anchorage, who, along with her husband and infant son, took part in the Alaska Food Challenge to eat local for an entire year. She presented her experiences last week at several venues on the central Kenai Peninsula as part of the Harvest Moon Local Foods Week.
Esslinger is not entirely new to the concept of being “green.” She has a bachelor’s degree in environmental science and a master’s in regenerative entrepreneurship from Gaia University. She was certified in permaculture design in 2004 and as a permaculture teacher in 2010. Most recently she founded the Williams Street Farmhouse in Anchorage, where much of the food for her challenge was grown.
“People think you need 5 acres to grow enough to sustain yourself and your family, but that’s not the case,” she said.
Esslinger and her family transformed a few hundred square feet of lawn in an urban neighborhood into their garden. She said that this was a great way to start saving money, since lawns — with a need of water, fertilizers and mowing — use a lot of resources and give little back, while a garden could be used to grow food, rather than grass.
Esslinger and her family grew a variety of crops, including rhubarb, cabbage, cucumbers, kale and other greens, zucchini and other gourds, and carrots, potatoes and other root crops. They also grew a variety of herbs to use in the dishes they would be eating for the next year.
“The total harvest was 1,622 pounds,” Esslinger said.
This required an initial purchase of $200 in seeds, but when her harvest amount was compared to what the in-store price would have been, the approximate value saved was $5,460 in groceries.
Growing was only half the battle, though. They still needed to ensure they could put the food away to have it through the winter months, so Esslinger and her family canned many items and blanched and froze others. They fermented still others, such as cucumbers and cabbage, to transform them into pickles and sauerkraut, which Esslinger said had the added benefit of producing probiotics and vitamins, which are essential to good nutrition.
“We tried to store everything because, going into this, even though we did six months of research before we began, we didn’t know how much we would really need. We probably put up 40 pounds of kale alone,” she said.
The challenge also meant foraging for food, which Esslinger said was an extremely enjoyable part of the process.
“We got to see all the bounty Alaska has to offer,” she said.
Her family harvested 224 pounds of salmon, largely from dip-netting. The gear, permits and gas cost roughly $270, but they saved what would have cost approximately $4,032 had they purchased that volume of seafood.
“We knew going into this challenge we didn’t want to just eat a fillet with a side of kale and potatoes for every meal. Variety was the real challenge,” she said.
They made salmon sausage and salmon bacon and ate it with other creative dishes and sides, such as rhubarb barbecue sauce.
Esslinger’s husband hunted a caribou, which yielded 150 pounds of meat, and the couple raised meat chickens as another protein source. In addition to protein, they foraged for mushrooms, nettles and a variety of berries, which comprised another 562 pounds of food.
Not all of the challenge required growing and catching food. Esslinger and her family also made purchases for items they could not acquire any other way, but they did so from local producers.
They purchased whole wheat and barley from Delta Junction, which they used to make breads and tortillas, and cream to make butter came from Matanuska Creamery. They bought into a goat share to obtain milk and for making cheese and other dairy items.
“The total food purchase was $434,” Esslinger said.
Looking back on the year of eating local, Esslinger said that the most common question she’s asked is, “How did you survive?” But with a few exceptions of now purchasing occasional things — some too time-consuming to make, too difficult to find locally or do without, such as olive oil, butter, sugar and salt — she said the experience was actually enjoyable, and that she has continued to live and eat largely the same way.
“You get the exercise and fresh air from growing and obtaining food this way, there’s the health benefits of not having MSG or GMOs, there’s no fossil fuels used to grow and ship food to Alaska, or go to the grocery store for it,” she said. “And eating all homemade or from-scratch food is so delicious.”
To learn more about the Alaska Food Challenge, read Esslinger’s blog of her experiences, or learn a few of her local recipes, check out http://williamsstreetfarmhouse.com/, or her Facebook page.