Can a tiny town in Southeast Alaska reshape how America eats?

The Sitka sac roe herring fishery takes place every spring in Sitka Sound. (Emily Russell/KCAW)

A leading food systems researcher and author has identified seven unlikely cities that are changing the way Americans eat.

Even more unlikely: One of them is in Alaska.

Surprise. The unlikely city in Alaska helping shape the national food scene is Sitka. But Sitkans aren’t riding this wave out of choice, necessarily. Author Mark Winne was in the community last year, and reports that Sitka’s food strategies are the result of several factors — most importantly, the price.

“I’ve seen numbers about the cost of food in Sitka — not just compared to Seattle and Portland — but also compared to places like Anchorage,” said Winne. “It’s very, very expensive here, and people know that.”

Sitka’s groceries are 35 percent higher than the US mainland, and 10-21 percent higher than other urban communities in Alaska, according to data in Winne’s latest book, Food Town USA: Seven Unlikely Cities that are Changing the Way We Eat. Winne is a senior advisor to the John Hopkins Center for a Liveable Future. He’s spent his career studying food systems — and Sitka’s is unique in his experience.

“At least 95-percent of the food that people eat here is coming from the Lower 48, coming in via barge,” Winne said. “That’s an idea that’s brand new to me. I’d never heard of people getting most of their food via a barge.”

But it’s not as if Sitkans are totally at a loss if a barge fails to arrive. Often on a Sunday night prior to a Monday barge landing, you’d find the dairy shelves in the town’s three grocery stores nearly stripped bare. Sitka is the largest community in Alaska that also has a rural designation under Federal subsistence rules. Winne says that nearly 60 percent of Sitkans eat some fish or game every week. Even before there was such a thing as a foodie scene, wild foods were at the heart of Sitka’s.

This is how the community earned a chapter in Food Town USA, alongside places like Boise, Idaho; Portland, Maine; and Jacksonville, Florida.

“I was looking for a place that was different from all the others — all the cities that I was going to in the Lower 48,” Winne said. “A place that was more isolated, more rural, and also had a strong fisheries connection. And also had a vital food scene, a food culture. People really interested in different ways with food, from beer to salmon to berries to whatever! And Sitka really fit the bill in that regard.”

During his visit to Sitka in 2018, Winne spent time at one of Sitka’s farmer’s market, took a skiff ride out to a Andrea Fraga’s massive Middle Island Gardens, toured the community with the organizers of the community’s thriving food co-op, and studied the Fish-to-Schools program. He also gathered people at the library to talk about his work, and to hear local concerns over food security — of which there are plenty. Many Sitkans wonder if the town shouldn’t create and maintain a food reserve, in the event catastrophe prevented the arrival of a barge for several weeks. Or if there should be a local food center, to consolidate efforts to promote healthy, affordable eating in the community.

Winne says that Sitka’s intentional, collaborative approach toward its food system is noteworthy, and a lesson for the rest of the country.

“If people who really care about good food for everybody, and food security, and health, and maybe most importantly the sustainability of the planet,” said Winne, “if they don’t work together and start to set aside differences, and start to create more planning, more coordinated activity, then we won’t have the capacity we need to face the challenges that we have there.”

Food Town USA: Seven Unlikely Cities that are Changing the Way We Eat is Winne’s fourth book on food systems. Published by the Island Press, it’s available in bookstores everywhere.

Erin Slomski-Pritz contributed to this story.