Right and now onto the actual post. Food Storage and Disaster Preparedness in Alaska. Why do we feel we need it up here, how much food should we store and why sourcing food locally is a challenge.
By the way, enjoy the picture of the fall foliage in my back yard up top there. I wasn't sure what to show for a picture for a post like this, so I thought that was a good one as fall is always the "oh my Gosh winter is coming!!!" type of panicky season for me when it comes to making sure we have adequate food stored, so I thought it would work for this.
Section One: Circumstances Impacting Food Supply Lines in Alaska
I just want to put forth a disclaimer here. I was not born in Alaska. I was born in Maine and spent my childhood years there, lived in Pennsylvania for my teen years and only moved to Alaska when I married my husband. So, my perspective is going to be skewed by that, of course because I'm an import (as Alaskans call it *laugh*). Now, on the other hand, my husband is a fourth generation Alaskan and has lived his entire life here, so I've picked his brain a bit for this post.
Living in Alaska, versus living in the Lower 48 (which is what we call the contiguous 48 states by the way), is different. That's both an understatement and the absolute truth of the matter. Alaska has a lot going on over a large area and is unique in a lot of ways.
First, let's start with the size of the state. We like to kid that if we cut Alaska in half than Texas could be proud to be the third biggest state. Not far from the truth. Alaska.org has a good graphic showing this.
Now, combine the sheer size of this state with a few other issues. One: We are completely detached from the Lower 48 because of where we are. To drive to the Lower 48 we HAVE to go through Canada to get there and it'll take you a few days to get there at LEAST (and that's if you really push it, have alternating drivers, don't get behind campers going 10 miles under the speed limit and the weather and roads are good). All of our groceries are trucked, barged or flown in pretty much (mainly trucked or barged). We do have SOME locally produced food, but not much. We have one dairy I believe (I think the one in Delta Junction finally closed a few years ago), some locally grown produce (which with the exception of potatoes, cabbage and carrots tends to be spendy because things like fertilizer, seed and other items farmers need to grow food costs more up here, so the final cost on the products has to be more as well) and if you can afford it you can get some locally produced meat (like if you want to travel up to Delta Junction you can buy a half of a cow for a reasonable, by Alaska standards, price and you can fill your freezer with beef). Our local Ag community is wonderful, and determined, to get Alaska grown bigger and more affordable but, it's a long and slow process.
There's also the issue that a lot of our state is owned by the Federal Government and consists of National Parks. This makes building roads a problem (that and the substantially long distances to travel from one place to another), housing prices get ridiculously high (because of lack of land to build on), manufacturing and industry are downright non-existent (other than oil and commercial fishing...which our waters are so over fished I'm not sure how much longer that's going to be around) and as a result we have one road that connects most of the state and that's it. So traffic jams are the norm anymore during anything resembling rush hour and if the one road should get closed due to a natural disaster? Well, Anchorage and the Valley could become cut off from each other very easily and Fairbanks could be on it's own for quite a while if somewhere in the loonnnnnggg stretch of road between North and South gets cut off for any length of time. We have towns that will get cut off from the outside world by an avalanche, rock slides, flooding...lots of things.
Next there is the issue of our population. Alaska, the entire state, has a population less than most cities in the Lower 48. The last time I checked we're standing at about 666,000 people as of last year (and more people are moving out all the time due to the screw ups our legislature and governor have made the last two years). This population being so small is also spread out throughout the state and each pocket of population is different in attitudes, cultures and everything in between. However we do have major pockets of population in some of our major cities. Anchorage, the Valley (Wasilla and Palmer and surrounding areas) and Fairbanks are some of the examples. Box stores love this as the population having to congregate to the major population centers to shop leads to great sales numbers for them. For instance, Sears and Wal-Mart in Wasilla are regularly the highest sale stores in the country. People who live in the bush communities tend to have to fly to the nearest town and they don't do that very often, so when they fly in they stock up on EVERYTHING to take back with them as buying things in the bush stores is insanely priced.
So, if you want cranberries for Christmas or Thanksgiving? Better buy those early, preferably as soon as the stores get those in, or you will be out of luck if you want to try and buy them a week beforehand. Vegetable stock sells out about a month before Thanksgiving and MIGHT get back into stock before Christmas. Might.
The biggest thing with the population centering it's shopping in a few major cities as well as our remote location...well it leads to different issues with food and not just things selling out fast and being out of stock for quite a while (which, as stated above, is an issue). When I first moved here for YEARS I would not even look at produce unless it was apples or some other well storing vegetable. The majority of produce wasn't worth looking at or eating as it would be at least partially rotten and expensive and that was primarily due to the long shipping times for food to get here. The supply lines in this regard have gotten better over the years (kudos to the store chains for that), but I still find you have to buy produce in season up here and you still need to be willing to look through a lot of produce to find a good specimen to find. I regularly go through at least 15 containers of strawberries at a time to find a container that looks okay and not containing a bunch of rotten berries. Fresh Raspberries and blueberries at the store...forget it. They are really expensive and the quality is still terrible (after four years or so, I got to admit that I just gave up on buying those up here...now it's frozen out of season or I pick my own as much as I can).
Grapes are great in season if you are lucky enough to get to a sale early enough as the stores will sell out within days of starting a good sale on something like that. During the winter grapes are just out of my price range. They quickly jump up to about 5.00 per pound during the winter (sometimes more). Bananas are .89 at the stores regularly, so I will buy those during the winter months. Storage apples (the bulk bags) tend to remain stable in price through the winter so I get those for the daughter to snack on (as the bulk apples go up to about 2.49 lb during the winter or more while the bags of smaller apples tend to go for about .84 to 1.08 lb instead depending on if I have a personalized price on them or not) and lettuce tends to be reasonably priced (IF you can find it as the stores will run out of stuff up here and be out for a while). We also get mandarin oranges (the fresh ones! I didn't even know you could get those fresh growing up *laugh*) in around Christmas so I try to buy some of those for a fresh burst of vitamin C in our diets when I can.
But, yeah, during the winter, variety is limited and even more so depending on your budget. And the rest of the year what is available at the stores depends on what the stores get in and what they can get in that isn't rotten by the time it gets here. For instance, cucumbers are REALLY sporadic on availability and if they are you are hopeful that they are at least KIND OF good versus squishy. For instance, more than a few times when I've wanted to make gyro sauce (I'd try to spell the exact sauce type, but I'd slaughter it right now) I've had to say "forget it" as cucumbers were completely unavailable or a few times I've had to buy the pre-cut bowls of cucumbers the stores would sell for veggie trays just so I had the cucumbers I needed (at a higher price point than if I could have bought an actual cucumber)
Stores have a logistical nightmare going on when ordering things up here. We are five weeks out on ordering because we depend on trucking to get the items up here. Grocery stores, I believe, have a bit better ordering window, but I doubt by much. And if you order something from corporate? Well, you might or might not get what you ordered. Alaska tends to be dead last on the list of worries for companies, so a lot of times we'll get basically the seconds or even thirds when it comes to produce and things, especially during busy high volume sales parts of the year (like the holidays). I remember for three years in a row I would look for bags of mixed nuts to crack myself (figured it was the best way to make sure the nuts were safe for the son's peanut allergy) around the holidays and could find NOTHING at any of the stores...it's still sporadic if we can get the in-shell nuts in up here for the holidays.
So, if you find a good sale on seasonal produce where the price is good and the produce is good? By God you jump on it and you preserve that food anyway you can! That is if you want the joy of having a food that is so much better for you than commercially canned foods (less sugar and put up at peak ripeness) and tastes SO much better!
There's also the matter of price of shipping things up here and how it effects the prices on day to day items. People who visit Alaska go into sticker shock pretty fast when it comes to things like fast food. A meal at McDonalds will run you about 10.00 and a meal at a restaurant...well it depends on the restaurant, but eating out at Red Robin, for instance, will cost us about 38 to 50.00 for my family of four and that is with one kid who just eats french fries. We do not have anything resembling Dollar General, the Dollar store or anything like that. We've had some dollar plus stores come and go over the years, but they seem to finally fail. By the time they add the mark up on items for shipping costs they just can't keep the items under a dollar for the most part and by the time the price is raised people tend to say, "forget it" and go and shop at Wal-Mart or Target. We don't have anything resembling an Aldi, an Ikea, a Whole Foods, a Harbor Freight...the list goes on.
And you are lucky if a company will ship something up here at all and if they DO you're lucky if you can find an outfit that will do it for a reasonable price and if you do you stick with them like glue. There have been MANY times I'll go to order a small item, like say something that could easily fit into a mailing envelope, only to quickly shut the tab when the shipping cost of 40.00 or more pops up on the screen. It's like our own game of Russian Roulette when we are on a site that advertises "free shipping" to see if it is, indeed, free to Alaska or if they ship to Alaska at all. You type in your zipcode with baited breath and wait to see where the wheel of fate will fall. Which is one of the reasons I like Amazon in a way, and get annoyed with them in another. For instance, I pay the same amount for Prime as everyone else in the country. But I do not get Prime Pantry, Amazon Fresh, a whole ton of items (including things I had previously ordered before many times) won't ship up here at all, and if they do ship up here you pray that there isn't a catch when it comes to the shipping costs. And we do not get faster shipping with Prime up here, well unless you pay out the nose for it on an item, so we pay the same for faster shipping and still get it shipped two weeks after ordering it. The reason I buy Prime is because we like the variety of movies and shows we can watch with Prime and, most importantly, the ability to order one item at a time versus 50.00 (or it might be up to more for all I know) to get free shipping on an order. That, in itself is worth it, for now. If Amazon raises the price of Prime, I'm not sure where the break even point will be for me.
Shipping costs at the regular stores get passed onto the consumer up here as well. Be prepared to pay 1.00 more per item of clothing, fuel costs are high up here (believe it or not) because we pay to ship our fuel out of the state, refine it and then ship it back in and the list goes on. So, when you can find an outfit that will ship things from the Lower 48 for cheap, it's totally worth ordering items in. Thus why I use Subscribe and Save on Amazon so much (I cancel my subscription as soon as I get my order in, however, as they don't grandfather you in at the price you paid, so the next time you are set to get that item you might pay 40.00 where you only paid 4.00 six months before). It just saves me money to buy in bulk and then I have reserve amounts of items I use as well.
Some of the things we just learn to deal with up here that impact day to day life. If a truck gets delayed, especially in the winter due to bad weather, you are looking at stores running out of eggs, milk and other essentials for a few days up to a few weeks on some things. In some cities like Fairbanks, they will lose power and can be without power for a few days at a time, so they always have dehydrated foods and things on hand in case they will need to use them. We also worry about dock worker strikes (even though I guess there is a Federal law now that prohibits them from cutting off Alaska and Hawaii from necessary food items and things) as when my husband was younger there was a dock worker's strike in Washington state and Alaska was completely cut off from getting in supplies for quite a while. My husband's family celebrated Christmas very late that year as items that had been catalog ordered got delayed due to the strikes and they didn't have anything to celebrate with. My mother-in-law talks about the stores being out of toilet paper and other items for quite a while during that time. Now, while today we don't have to worry about strikes messing with supply lines so much (in theory anyway), we do worry a lot about something like an Earthquake hitting Idaho or Washington. If something bad happens in Seattle it will be like a major artery to Alaska gets cut off and that could lead to us not having essentials for quite a while until supply lines get worked out and running again. We don't even like to contemplate another 1964 magnitude quake hitting up here as that could really mess with supply as well (and, of course, a magnitude quake of that scale is just terrifying to think about anyway).
We also have our own sets of natural circumstances to deal with. We, of course, have the aforementioned earthquakes and even if a really bad one hits off in the middle of nowhere you can still feel it in other parts of the state (for instance the first big quake I experienced was the 2002 Denali quake, which by the way gives me a MAJOR phobia of earthquakes to this day *laugh*) and can make some major damage to roadways. We have high winds, especially in the Valley that will go for days at a time and can make trailer trucks tip over in some cases, blow greenhouses around, knock down vines and plants (which is why I haven't attempted to grow grape vines yet, even though I have found a few varieties rated for my growing zone) and just generally wreck havok. On one radio station I was listening to while travelling to work in high winds years ago (I believe they clocked in at 90 mph) one guy said that living in Alaska was like finding a natural disaster and wrestling with it for fun. At the time I agreed with him. We also have long winters, dark winters, so when roads get icy they tend to stay that way, and with one road going everywhere in the state...road plowing and things just is NOT what it is down South (in Anchorage the last few years plowing has been absolutely non-existent). I quickly learned one thing living here. This state shuts down for nothing, and I mean nothing, and you are going to have to drive through any weather to get to where you are going or you aren't going to get there. I still draw a line with the weather and refuse to leave when I consider it too much of a risk, a absence from school be darned, but I know many people who grew up here who will literally drive through any weather or condition without a second thought (I will never be one of those people...it's just not my nature).
So, when growing a garden or installing a greenhouse you have to consider the wind and other weather and also with the dark during the winter we have an exceptionally short growing season (about 80 days), but we also have sunlight in the summer which approaches 24 hours of daylight in June, so we do have a short, but fast growing season because of that. We actually have naturally mutated trees and underbrush that have learned to deal with the light cycles up here and grow much quicker than in the Lower 48 and for reasons that they are still trying to figure out our berries are super mutant berries with MUCH higher levels of nutrients than those that grow down South.
And then we have the wildlife, can't forget them. We lack some of the smaller animal problems up here that the Lower 48 has (so far). We don't have skunks (not sure about down South in Alaska, but I know we don't have them up here), snakes, raccoons and some other problems, but we have moose coming out our ears, bears (they have become a huge problem in Anchorage and have killed people in recent years), lynx (I actually have a family of them that wander around my house in the winter and live around here, not seen at all often, though, as they are people shy), wolves and other...well bigger problems to deal with. If you put in a big garden a 12' electric fence with fencing at different levels is kind of a necessity if you want it to survive to harvest (moose) and if you keep chickens or other small livestock you have to put in planning the consistency of the Normandy invasion to keep everything that could kill your animals out and if you want your feed to survive. I went years with the moose not bothering my garden because it was a small garden in a slim corridor of space since our camper pretty much butts up against the garden space, but that has changed as of last year, so we're trying to figure out how to put in a greenhouse next year or do something differently as putting in an electric fence where the garden is just isn't a viable option (for one my husband has to haul the garbage through there to take it to the dump).
Section 2: The Necessity of Food Storage in Alaska and Personal Circumstances
When it comes to food storage in Alaska, it is actually not only recommended but also a necessity to be prepared for various things cutting off our food supply for a length of time.
For instance, the State of Alaska itself has sought to store food for 40,000 people for seven days. Even they knew that the amount of food wouldn't help everyone, but it was better than nothing.
Some people who move up here from the Lower 48 and move into city centers just don't get it until we have a truck get delayed and suddenly the bananas are gone for days, but I haven't met anyone who has lived up here for very long who decides to settle here and raise a family who doesn't have as much food storage as they can realistically store safely in their particular home or living environment. It is just something we do. It's just like changing the oil on your car or pulling out your winter clothes in the fall. It's just something you DO without thinking about...almost a knee jerk reaction type of event. If you are smart you have at least one generator, a store of gas for that generator (which unfortunately those have become prime targets for thieves in the last couple of years) and a good store of water that you can access just in case on top of the food, but the food is something that goes without saying.
To try and get an idea of exactly how much food we should store in Alaska, I called my local branch of the Cooperative Extension Service and just asked some questions. They actually pointed me to Utah for a good idea on how to calculate basics for food storage. The Mormons really are the authority on this issue and have done a lot of research on foods and what their storage life is and the things you would need for basics to live in. Now, the Mormon church itself recommends having a year of food storage as a good amount and a minimum of three months. This is in the event of a bad economic year, job loss, a bad natural disaster, etc, you'll have the basic foods you'll need to live while waiting for things to get better. The Cooperative Extension Service recommends a minimum of three months of food be stored for families in Alaska, more in the more remote locations, to make sure you can survive in the event of a natural disaster that cuts off the state from Anchorage or shipments form the Lower 48.
You can read more and get links to food calculations and things HERE.
Now there is also personal circumstances that impact how much food you store. For instance, my husband and I both knew what it was like to be poor in our childhoods and it impacted what foods our families had to eat, my husband's family more so. So, we tend to make sure we have foods we like to eat stock piled almost as much as basic food stuffs just because if given a choice between noodles with say just plain oil on them or having the choice of having noodles with oil on them or spaghetti with tomato sauce, we prefer to have the spaghetti option. I keep cake mixes around for this purpose as sometimes just having something sweet that you can make with basic ingredients around the house just cheers up a just dreary money situation. I've kind of expanded the canned goods I like to keep stock piled the last few years, mainly because after having a few bad economic years and being down to eating green beans as a side with dinner ALL WINTER LONG one year (I still don't like to eat green beans very often because of that), I consider it a personal goal to make sure we have more than green beans in the house, preferably having as much variety as I can afford to choose from.
My biggest worry when putting together emergency supplies is Alvah. I don't have the option to keep an emergency supply going of his monthly medications as things like Risperidone are tightly controlled which worries me to no end in case something happens to our supply lines for those things up here. For instance we've been without epi-pens in the state going on eight months now with the epi-pen recall so you either carry around your expired epi pens or do without for the time being. They're back ordered, but back orders in Alaska can get LOOONNNNGGG, so I just keep calling the pharmacy every couple of weeks and asking if they have any news yet. Storing foods like Cheetos is cumbersome to say the least and you can't really keep 3 months worth of Cheetos around as they'll get stale by the time you get to eat them if you are not careful. So, I try to keep the few basic foods Alvah will eat that I can store, pasta, Coke (yes for him that is a basic food) and white rice primarily and then I try to buy the shelf stable milk and rotate it out as needed to try and at least keep a emergency supply of milk around for him (he will not do evaporated or dehydrated milk). When it comes to Alvah and food...I worry, but when it comes to contemplating getting cut off from his favored foods or medicines...I panic a bit inside and just swallow it down and pray. I can only do what I can do, so that's what I deal with.
So, I aim for a year's supply for canned goods, pasta (at least 52 boxes of pasta, preferably those 52 base boxes being angel hair or thin spaghetti as we go through at least a box a week of it with the son), bread flour, all purpose flour, sugar, rice (never makes it, but I buy 50 lbs when dividends come in and try to make it go as long as possible...once again it's a son preferred food), milk (evaporated or dehydrated and shelf stable every three months on average going with the expiration date on the milk), bullion and other staples and then I build up from there to put satellite items like vanilla, corn starch and things like that into the pantry as well. I aim for at LEAST three months, but hope for a year's worth as there have been many a lean year around here and having a good amount of food storage has cut down on our grocery bill when we absolutely needed to save every penny we could get.
Section 3: Conclusion
So, after taking into account all of that, would I consider food storage a necessity for everyone? Well, yes, I would as it's just smart to keep extra food around in the short term in case you run into problems and can't afford groceries one week, or are laid up and can't get to the store for a few days with a twisted ankle or something (or have no money coming in because of that), or even for a snow storm hits and you don't want to risk your life to go to the store for a gallon of milk.
Long term food storage is a smart move in case you are laid off or work dries up (which has happened to us more than once in the past with my husband working in the construction field with variable income circumstances being a norm) or you suddenly find yourself just not being able to work, let alone a natural disaster cutting you off from things for any length of time. In Alaska, though, it is not only smart, but necessary really, so you can ride out the uneven ebb and flow of food supply up here let alone something major happening.
And there you go folks. Some of the unique challenges living in Alaska and why we consider it necessary to keep a decent amount of food storage around. I hope you found it useful or at least interesting to read *laugh*.
And now I'm off to work on my shopping goals, which I've redone about five times now, so far. Hope you are all having a good day :).