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Kinneen with competitor Jack Strong (left) at the NMAI cook off. (Photograph by Kelsey Snell)

Eating Local…in Alaska

By Kelsey Snell 

Treasure hunting for edible gems might be the trend du jour for chefs lately — Danish super chef and scavenger René Redzepi finds and fries moss and plucks sea cabbages, while baristas at Durham, North Carolina’s Scratch Bakery infuse milk with backyard honeysuckle and lavender to spice up their espresso specials — but it’s been a long-time tradition for Native Americans.

With nearly a quarter of Alaska’s population comprised of natives who once lived solely off fishing, hunting, and gathering, you’d think it might be the state that knows the new-fangled “trend” best. But that’s far from the case, with 95 to 98 percent of its food supply coming from outside state lines.

That’s why Alaskans like chef Rob Kinneen are starting a home-grown food revival. “For Alaskans, it’s hardly ever, ‘Let’s look at what we have around us,’” says Kinneen. “But we have the resources to make things happen.”

Fresh for thought

I had the chance to sit down with Kinneen before a native cook-off at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. Our topic of conversation was Fresh49, Kinneen’s new platform for all things local and sustainable — and all things Alaska, where those two buzzwords don’t make hearts flutter like they do in urban centers or even the neighboring Northwest.

Alaskans are well aware that their challenges — remoteness, climate, size, poor infrastructure — set them apart from the Lower 48. Short growing seasons and severe weather conditions make it an uphill battle for Alaskan farmers. For instance, there are only 100 frost-free days a year in the Anchorage area, where Kinneen is based.

What’s more, there’s only a handful of in-state facilities for processing produce, and once it’s processed, distributors have to cover ground, sky, or sea — and do so quickly — to deliver fresh goods to village markets across a state bigger than Texas, California, and Montana combined. Then those villagers or local restaurants have to be willing to pay the price.

At that point, importing ingredients from out-of-state facilities is starting to sound pretty good.

But Kinneen sticks to his guns. “We need to be producing micro goods locally,” he said, “not buying macro goods abroad.” He knows that can’t be done without investing in new technology, improving communication between farmers, and educating Alaskans about the importance of local food — and he’s more than willing to do some heavy lifting to see it happen.

For Kinneen, it’s all about protecting Alaska’s food supply and the health, culture, and traditions of Alaskans themselves. To spread the word, he records webisodes where he cooks using the indigenous foods he finds at farmers markets and on foraging treks (think clam salad with a pickled kelp vinaigrette), and speaks at festivals and events all over the U.S. (check out the TEDx talk he gave in Anchorage earlier this year).

It takes a village

Kinneen isn’t the only one spurring Alaska’s local food movement. In the last seven years, the number of farmers markets in the Last Frontier has tripled. Alaska Grown, a state-run agriculture program, has played a major role in the local food boom by providing incentives for restaurants to purchase produce from Alaska Grown farms.

Bernie Karl bought hot springs 400 miles north of Anchorage because he wanted to tap them as a geothermal energy source to power his greenhouses. So, when it’s a typical below-zero day in the Alaskan winter, Karl’s tomatoes and leafy greens don’t skip a beat. Meyers Farm in Bethel, Alaska is another innovator, growing its organic produce with fertilizer enriched by salmon byproducts instead of chemicals.

For Alaskans, this food revival is more than an eco-friendly “buy local” mantra on a shopping bag. The movement itself is grassroots — Alaska grown — and it’s redefining native identity and state independence.

Kelsey Snell is a researcher at National Geographic Traveler who believes that true success in life is measured by going, not getting.