Residents of Alaska have historically been more likely than people in other states to have a supply of frozen food on hand, but their reliance on food from stores has grown in recent years, leaving them vulnerable in an emergency.
Like every other state, Alaska has to be prepared for disasters, both natural and man-made. But as it works to make sure its residents would have enough food in a disaster, the state also has to deal with some unique challenges.
“We’ve got volcanoes, earthquakes, cold weather — a lot of potential for emergencies up here,” said Danny Consenstein, state executive director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency in Alaska. “Do we have a food system that is resilient and strong, that could help us in case of emergencies?”
Work on that food system is happening on several fronts: The state is establishing an emergency food supply as part of a larger emergency management effort. Local communities are also looking at both short- and long-term ways to ensure a stable supply of food.
All of this work happens against the backdrop of a huge geographic challenge:
“We have many things in common with the rest of the country, but we also have some things that are uncommon,” said John Madden, director of the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. “We still need all the basics — food, water, energy, medicine, shelter — but our need for them can only be met in a limited number of ways.” Most towns in the United States have several roads leading in and out of them and can be reached easily by helicopter if necessary.
“The supply lines to Alaska do not work that way,” Madden said. Ninety percent of the goods in the state come in through one port in Anchorage. One incident “could have a very profound cascading effect on those supply lines.”
The structure of Alaska’s government is unusual, as well. In Alaska as in other states, the responsibility for emergency preparedness starts with the individual, then goes to the community level, then to the state and finally to the federal government. But more than one-third of Alaska — a lightly populated area about as large as Texas — is not organized into any form of local government, making the state primarily responsible for emergency services. In those areas, the state has primary responsibility for several things that in many other states would be handled first by counties.
Additional complicating factors include the fact that the federal government actually owns about two-thirds of the land in Alaska, though emergency preparedness is the responsibility of the state even for that federal land.
The state’s geography adds to the challenge. The whole state is far away from the sources of most of the goods it imports, and within Alaska, many people live in remote areas.
“Help is a long distance away,” Madden said.
Transportation of goods is also difficult. “There are so many villages and small communities that are off the road system,” Consenstein said. Even around Anchorage, some suburbs depend on bridges to connect them to the city, a vulnerability when it comes to getting food after a disaster.
In addition, the extreme cold weather, with temperatures reaching more than 50 degrees below zero, can present winter hazards.
Alaska does have some advantages when it comes to emergency food, what Consenstein calls “a culture of wild food.” Alaskans have traditionally hunted and fished, catching salmon, moose and caribou. They have frozen salmon, meat and berries for winter use. Especially in the remote villages, Alaska residents may be likelier than residents of most states to have a freezer stocked with an ample supply of food after a disaster.
However, that culture has been changing, Consenstein said. In some of those remote communities, “they rely more on food from stores, and if the planes don’t get into those villages, the store shelves are empty.”
Alaska has taken a number of steps toward establishing an emergency food supply, as part of a program initiated by the governor to increase preparedness and resilience in four areas: power, water, communications and food, Madden said.
“On those first three, we have completed almost everything we need,” Madden said. The state has generators in a range of sizes that can be moved to where they are needed. It has water purification systems. And it has mobile communications systems that range in size from those that are pulled by a truck to those that fit in a backpack.
Food, the fourth component of the plan, was more difficult, Madden said. The state wanted to purchase and store food for 40,000 people for seven days, and wanted to be sure it could get to where it was needed. “There are very few places in the nation that have done a supply of food to the measure that we are.”
The emergency planners also took into account the state’s entire population. For example, the MRE, or Meal, Ready-to-Eat, used by the military is designed for healthy men and women in their 20s and 30s. They may not be appropriate for infants, the elderly or those with dietary restrictions. The state wanted to be sure the food supply would serve everyone.
When the state first asked for bids on this project in 2012, it was seeking one vendor that could supply the food and then store and manage the emergency supply. “We did not get any qualified bidders,” Madden said.
More recently, the state tried again, with a different approach that divided up the bidding process. First, it asked for bids just for providing the food. Once the state has all the information it needs from the vendor it chooses — information like the volume, the shelf life and the storage requirements for the food — it will enter the second phase where it selects a vendor to provide storage and management.
The state is in the process of awarding the first contract and will then proceed to the next step. “I anticipate that there will be more than enough bidders with various types of solutions for the storage,” Madden said. The entire process could be complete by the end of summer.
The state wants some of the food stored in or near Anchorage and some in Fairbanks, Madden said. “There’s no natural hazard that can affect both places simultaneously.”
In addition to the state’s efforts to quickly procure an emergency food supply, Alaskans are working in several different ways to improve the state’s long-term preparedness.
“If the question is, how can we make Alaska more prepared, particularly around food for emergencies, my answer would be, we have to build a stronger, more resilient local food system,” said Consenstein.
In 1955, the state produced more than half of its own food, but according to Consenstein, that number today is about 5 percent. “As transportation has gotten better and cheaper, it has become harder for local economies to compete,” he said. “It’s more of a global marketplace, even for perishable food.”
Getting people to buy more locally produced food would have advantages ranging from emergency preparedness to health and economic benefits, Consenstein said. In addition, he said that Alaskans connect with this sense of self-reliance.
There are challenges, such as the fact that food can’t be grown year-round in most of the state. But good storage options would allow some food to be processed or frozen and kept for later use. In addition, new technology could allow some food to be grown indoors.
One group, the Alaska Food Policy Council, includes representatives from state and federal agencies, business owners, farmers, fishermen, anti-hunger groups and emergency managers — “anybody who has some connection to food in Alaska,” said Consenstein, who helped form the group several years ago. The group is working to study and improve all aspects of Alaska’s food system, from supporting food-related industries to making food supplies sustainable and secure.
There are also efforts to help individual communities become more self-reliant. Whereas the state is trying to prepare for a disruption to the supply line that connects Alaska to the rest of the country, communities are looking at ways to ensure their own food supplies in case of local disasters.
Darren Snyder, a cooperative extension agent with the University of Alaska Fairbanks and a member of the governing board of the Alaska Food Policy Council, has worked on a tool to help communities ensure they have an emergency food supply: the Alaskan Community Emergency Food Cache System. The idea is to build on the ways food is already being distributed and have local vendors keep extra food supplies, which they would rotate as part of their regular stock management. “It’s intentionally augmenting whatever food is going to the community anyway,” Snyder said.
“Food security has risen as a public interest topic,” Snyder said. The interest goes beyond concern about day-to-day hunger to include emergency planning. “How prepared are we?”