Groups work to expand produce access on peninsula

Jul 16, 2020

When we’re stressed, it can be easy to rely on junk food. After all, fresh produce can be expensive in Alaska, too. But a number of central peninsula groups are trying to make it easier to stock up on delicious produce.

The Kenai Peninsula Food Bank has been extra busy this summer, with the pandemic putting extra pressure on the peninsula. The food bank is based in Soldotna but serves the entire borough and has been making runs with fresh produce out to more of the outlying communities as part of a “farm-to-family” program. Executive director Greg Meyer said the food bank was able to use donations to purchase a used refrigerated truck, too, which helps now that they are able to distribute fresh milk, too.

"We pick it up once a week," he said. "We’re getting 720 boxes of 15 pounds each of produce and it’s got great information in it about what to do with it—how to cook, storage, et cetera. And two weeks ago they started out with milk as well. We can get families a couple of gallons of fresh milk as well, and we’re doing that weekly. And we’re trying to do that more out into the peninsula so it’s involving a lot of picking up and transferring, delivering and moving around, but it’s really a great program."

The food bank is technically open Monday through Friday, but Meyer said they’ve basically been operating seven days a week recently. The Fireweed Diner, which provides free meals to the community on weekdays, has never closed and has been busy sending out to-go meals. Meyer said the visitation there has increased, with some days double the past average and other days triple.

On Tuesdays, the food bank also hosts a growing farmers’ market at its headquarters in Soldotna. Farmers markets can be more expensive than grocery store produce, but it’s often better quality because it’s grown locally. Families on food assistance and seniors have access to coupons specifically for use at farmers’ markets—about $30 per year for use on Alaska Grown Products.

A group of Kenai Peninsula nonprofits and organizations have pulled together donations to match that and double it in a program called DoubleUp. Heidi Chay with the Kenai Local Food Connection said it’s similar to other programs around the country and pulled together funding from the Kenai Peninsula Foundation, Carver Family Foundation, Kenai chapter of the Alaska Farm Bureau, Bishop’s Attic and the Christ Lutheran Church in Soldotna.

"Part of what we really hope will happen is more people are able to make the trip to the farmer’s market," she said. "If they’ve got $60 per person to spend, it’ll get them there, and more of these farmer’s market nutrition coupons will be used."

The DoubleUp program is only available to people who are registered with WIC, the state nutritional assistance program, and income-qualified seniors. The farmer’s market coupon program isn’t as well known as the general food assistance program, she says, so the Kenai Local Food Connection is providing information and handing out coupons at the Farmer’s Fresh Market on Tuesdays and started doing so at the Soldotna Saturday Farmers Market next to Soldotna Elementary School last week. They’re also available from noon to four at the food bank during the week.

Farmers markets have been busy on the peninsula this year. Chay said the Soldotna Saturday Farmers Market’s numbers have been up every week over last year’s.

"Nationwide and across Alaska, we’re seeing strong interest in supporting local food, people a little bit more aware of their food security after this strange spring of interruptions in the food supply chain," she said. "I think people are realizing it’s important to support and expand and grow our local food supply, and one way you do that is by buying Alaska grown products."

Chay said the DoubleUp campaign is still open to donations through a GoFundMe campaign, which can be found by searching for DoubleUp on GoFundMe’s website. Meyer said the community has been supportive throughout this time as the food bank has stayed busy.

"I just can’t express enough how much I appreciate all of that (support)," he said. "This is a challenging time for everybody. We’re all in this together, and it’s been very exciting to be able to partner with some new nonprofits, and churches and agencies in the community that we can really dig down in and make sure everybody’s getting what they need."

He says anyone looking for help to connect on how to receive food should call the food bank at 262-3111, and they can help coordinate how to reach them. The food bank is also running its soup supper fundraiser online this year until Aug. 22, along with two raffles. More information is available on the food bank’s website.

Editor's note: This article has been updated to correct the name of the Soldotna Saturday Farmers Market.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at eearl@kdll.org.