Southeast Alaskans look to increase food production

JUNEAU — Where does your food come from? Where does your kid’s school lunch come from? Ninety-five percent of the time, the answer is a barge.

Lia Heifetz, owner of Grow Southeast and Food Security Coordinator for Southeast Conference, hopes to increase security in the region through production in Southeast Alaska, where most food comes from around the world and arrives on Alaska forks only through a complex web of transportation.

One place to start? Schools.

Heifetz is organizing the Fish and Farm to Schools Conference, starting at 8 a.m. April 2 and 3 at Centennial Hall to bring together Southeast schools and the would-be growers and harvesters who could freshen up those school lunch trays or share knowledge.

“The goal is to provide tools to educators, to increase awareness of food origins, health and traditions and to source more local foods into schools,” Heifetz said.

To do that last part, though, people in Southeast Alaska need to produce more food, which is why the conference is for more than just schools.

The conference has two tracks, one geared toward educators and school staff, and the other geared toward local food entrepreneurs or those who think they might like to be a local food entrepreneur if that were a possibility — and it is a possibility, Heifetz believes.

The conference will feature speakers from Southeast Alaska and beyond, as well as offer opportunities to network and share success stories.

On the schools track, some sessions will include an overview of the Farm to Schools program, information on child nutrition and food-focused curricula in the classroom.

On the entrepreneurial track, there will be sessions on agricultural resources, business planning for food enterprises, and funding and finance strategies.

There are also sessions that could benefit both types of participant, as well as the casual gardener or forager interested in composting hydroponics and “the store outside your door.”

So far, Heifetz said, there is a lot of representation from schools — and a lot of interest in integrating local foods in the menu.

“Juneau pays super high shipping costs to get food from all over,” Heifetz mused. “Maybe if instead of paying shipping, they could support a neighbor and buy carrots from them, and be able to support that business.”

Not many such businesses exist in Southeast Alaska.

“We really want people who are interested in growing or producing food,” she added.

Some may have a green thumb, but be nervous about startup costs or unsure about the market — those individuals may find answers at the conference.

Attendees will also find success stories.

One success story in the making is in the building stages at the University of Alaska Southeast Vocational Technology Center. Students from Juneau-Douglas and Yakoosge Daakahidi high schools are building a mobile greenhouse in their Home Build class that will serve as a green classroom, first at Thunder Mountain High School’s culinary program, and in future growing seasons at different Southeast schools.

They are building the foundation on a flatbed trailer. It’s the students’ third project in the class, JDHS senior Dominic Montalto said, and the first experience building a greenhouse for all the students but Montalto, who had helped his grandmother build one in Florida.

Instructor Andy Bullick said they’re hoping to finish the project in May — there’s still a lot of work to do — but that it was a good thing to take on because it involves a lot of useful skills and benefits the community.

Mark Puliafico, a junior at JDHS, said it’s nice that it brings together students across the three high schools, since their class has students from JDHS and YDHS, and it will go to TMHS when it’s completed, before heading to other regional schools.

A Thorne Bay teacher, Megan Fitzpatrick, will talk about how her school has been supplying lettuce to Prince of Wales Island from student-run greenhouses.

Greg Smith will talk about the hydroponics and aquaponics business he started with Trevor Kirchhoff. It notably supplies fresh basil locally.

From the local 4H Cooperative Extension Service and from Fairbanks, agents will talk about local resources and connecting kids with local foods in schools.

“It’s good for anybody,” Heifetz said of the conference, whose name doesn’t cover all that can be taken from two-days of presentations and breakout sessions.

During the Southeast Conference Mid-Session Summit, Heifetz told attendees that if Alaskans could displace just 3 percent of imported foods by growing, harvesting or purchasing locally, it could make a big difference in food security and in the economy. Alaska could potentially capture “$60 million that would stay in the state and circulate in local economies.”

“It’s more than just monetary value,” Heifetz explained. “It connects people back to the land.”

To learn more about the Fish and Farm to Schools Conference, visit