Valley veggies highlight plan to boost health among low income Alaskans

Coop. Extension Service's nutritional outreach cooking instructor Winona Benson. (photo by Ellen Lockyer, Alaska Public Media - Anchorage)
Coop. Extension Service’s nutritional outreach cooking instructor Winona Benson. (photo by Ellen Lockyer, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage)

“Tilth” is a word not easily defined. But an effort to bring better nutrition to low income Alaskans and a nationwide move toward increasing local food production have dovetailed as the impetus behind a new idea that can provide farm-to-table produce for those in need.

Spring Creek farm is nestled in the Matanuska Valley in the shadow of the Chugach Mountains. The farm is operated by Alaska Pacific University, and it provides a location for educational programs as well as agricultural production. Farm manager Megan Talley looks out on a bleak late winter day in January of this year. Bare tree branches snaggle in the breeze, and the fields around the log farmhouse are barren. But Talley is seeing the the future. She envisions this summer’s expanded vegetable production at Spring Creek.

“To get more food into the dining hall at APU and to train new farmers in entry level farming,” Talley said.

Talley is a native New Yorker, transplanted to Alaska, who worked her way up from intern farm hand to manager. She brought some East Coast ideas with her too, like using volunteer farm hands so they can get experience for future agricultural careers. And she’s given community supported agriculture a new twist. Like all CSA’s, a subscriber’s advance payment for produce helps the farm survive:

“That money goes into all the things we have to do right now, planting, seed ordering, maintaining equipment all of that stuff and the people who purchase shares get produce for the season,” Talley said. “We have an 18 week season.”

Tilth actually means “soil health”, Talley said. And that health can be passed on to people through fostering healthy eating habits. The idea behind the Alaska Tilth CSA is to help get fresh produce to low-income Alaskans by attracting non-profits or government agencies as subscribers and getting them to donate the produce they buy to charities and schools. In one case, in exchange for greenhouse use, Talley gave a CSA membership to the Cooperative Extension Service’s nutritional outreach program.

“The woman who ran that program didn’t have enough funding to buy fresh produce,” Talley said.

To see how Talley’s program worked, fast-forward to mid summer this year.  On a hot July day, Winona Benson chops raw bok choy in a full-sized restaurant kitchen in Wasilla.

“Ok, lets get started, my name is Winona Benson, for those of you who haven’t met me before.” she told a class of mostly seniors. “Alright, but I want to start with you, showing you how to do the bok choy salad.”

Benson is the Cooperative Extension outreach coordinator. She uses vegetables from the Spring Creek CSA in her cooking demonstrations and distributes the rest of the week’s veggie haul to class participants. Many of them are on a federal food assistance program.
The classes are held all over the Matanuska Valley at senior centers, women’s shelters, churches and at transitional housing for homeless teens.

This class is in the kitchen of the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, which also distributes Spring Creek produce at it’s Food Bank. The idea is to teach Alaskans in need how to use the wide variety of garden produce available to improve nutrition. Benson and her vegetables are framed in the pick-up window.  She adds nutritional advice along with her cooking instruction patter.

“Now all these foods are going to be high in iron. And iron is good for out blood.. it helps to move oxygen through the body to give us energy,” Benson said. “They are also high in vitamin C, keeping our immune system healthy and strong.”

The salad and it’s Asian dressing is healthy and it smells ” yummilicious,” Benson said.

Liz Potter, one of the seniors in the class, said she’s a regular but new to the concept of eating raw vegetables.

“I grew up, you cooked everything,” Potter said. “And with a mother from the South, you really cooked everything. So some of this has been new information for me.”

And, she gets a bonus. she’ll take home a grocery bag full of fresh veggies.

“One of the nice things is being able to go home with the recipes,” Potter said. “Not just watch and try to scribble down but to go home with the actual recipes. And the ability to ask questions as you go. You can’t do that on a TV show. And a joy to have the farmers here today, too. Those that are doing the work that we are reaping their rewards. ”

Some of the rewards of the Spring Creek Garden are made available to the public at a booth on APU campus during its weekly Thursday farmers market.

The last week in July, the produce envisioned in January is making a strong showing. Spring Creek farm intern MacKenzie Stamie is manning the farm’s booth at the market. She shows off collard greens the size of elephant ears piled next to a basket full of green kohlrabi:

“Yeah, the kohlrabi is actually delicious,” Stamie said. “If you peel off the outer skin, the inner part of the bulb is really delicious. It’s kind of a combination between a turnip and a cabbage. It’s really great raw, or in salads, coleslaws. Or stir fries, too. You can cook them. And the greens are great too.”

Farm boss Talley said training people to grow food on a large scale and providing fresh produce for people on low incomes are two issues linked to national food security concerns.

“Ideally, Alaska Tilth could grow into education on simple planting techniques for people to grow their own, but right now we just want to make sure that people who are unable to afford it have access to fresh produce,” Talley said.

This is Alaska Tilth’s second season.