It makes sense that the Alaska Food Hub has done so well this year. The virtual farmers market uses the same sort of online delivery system that brick and mortar stores have adopted during the pandemic. It was COVID-safe before COVID even came into being.
In 2020, the Food Hub tripled its sales. And famers are reaping the benefits.
“Our sales through the Food Hub are better than they’ve ever been,” said Lou Heite of Eagle Glade Farm in Nikiski. “I was really pleased. In fact, they’d have been even better if that doggone moose hadn’t gotten in and eaten $500 worth of cabbages.”
Heite and her husband, Steve Dahl, grow a bounty of produce from their small operation off Blueberry Avenue.
They have other jobs, too.
“It’s just the two of us,” she said. “And neither of us feels really comfortable sitting a whole day at a farmers market when there’s so much work to do.”
With the Food Hub, Heite gets orders online. Each week in the summer, customers go to the Food Hub site to click through a list of products from nearly 50 local producers, all in one virtual catalog.
Most producers are based on the Kenai Peninsula, but there are also operations in Anchorage, Juneau, Palmer and Girdwood.
The Food Hub consolidates orders into bags, which customers pick up at designated local locations. In Soldotna, that’s the Cook Inletkeeper Community Action Studio.
Cook Inletkeeper started the Food Hub in 2016 with a grant from the USDA. Regional Director Kaitlin Vadla said it began as a pilot project to create more points of access for local food.
“The majority of the cost of each item goes directly to whoever grew or produced it,” Vadla said. “And then there’s a small cut that goes to the operation of the Food Hub, which is the software, the computer software that we use to operate it, and the Food Hub manager, who coordinates all of the locations. So it’s a pretty low overhead for all of the coordination that needs to happen. There’s also somebody who drives up from Homer to bring up goods.”
Since then, the local food movement on the peninsula has grown, thanks in part to organizations like the Kenai Local Food Connection. More producers have joined the Food Hub over the last several years.
Vadla said the hub used to function at a loss.
“But now it sort of broke even, and we’re hoping that it takes the next step and perhaps turns into its own thing,” she said.
There’s a similar program in place in Southeast Alaska. Salt & Soil Marketplace is a virtual farmers market with locations in Haines, Sitka and Juneau.
For Eagle Glade Farm, the system is a significant source of earnings.
“The Food Hub gives us half to two-thirds of our income,” Heite said.
They’ve been involved in the Food Hub since it started. Dahl was the contact person for the area for the first two years.
Back then, they’d get information about orders the day before. Now, they get them by Monday for Wednesday pick-up.
“Two or three days and it makes a huge difference,” Heite said. “There are some things that you have to wait until the last minute to pick, like lettuce. But other things like cabbages can be picked and cleaned at some leisure.”
If you can get to them before the moose do, that is.
This year, the Food Hub added two holiday order periods — one at Thanksgiving and one at Christmas. Vadla said producers are selling all sorts of festive, farm-fresh fare.
“It’s definitely full of cookies and goodies and toffee and really fun canned salmon and Alaska salts and rubs, and there’s also beautiful baked goods for your Christmas day celebrations and oysters galore,” she said. “And turkeys. I mean, just go check it out.”
The Christmas market opens today and closes Monday, through the Alaska Food Hub website.
As Heite points out, the online format is not just a boon for farmers.
“When I point out to people that they can do at least their produce shopping and some of their value-added shopping in their pajamas on Saturday morning, or on a night that you’re not sleeping well, you can get up and get that task out of the way and you don’t have to go battle traffic or schedule anything or carry the kids around in a shopping basket,” she said.
For more, visit AlaskaFoodHub.org.