Recently a group of volunteers in Haines planted a garden at the Mosquito Lake Community Center in an effort to promote food security. Now they are asking the borough to provide more federal pandemic relief funds to expand the project.
Aspiring young farm to table chef Chisel Triezenberg has been using the kitchen at the Mosquito Lake Community Center to make snacks.
“We serve salad. We’re also making popsicles. We were just going to pick more food for our salad,” Triezenberg says.
He uses produce from a 6,000 square foot community garden that was created by volunteers at the start of June. They planted peas, beans, ten different types of greens, potatoes, carrots, beets, onions, leeks, cabbage and everyone’s favorite: brussel sprouts.
Erika Merklin has been spearheading efforts to develop the Mosquito Lake community garden. She’s asking the borough to fund a proposal to make the garden a more robust resource for food security. These days she says it’s a pretty simple arrangement. On the weekend volunteers have been working in the garden and anyone can take home produce.
“That’s something that’s currently happening only from 10 a.m. to noon on Saturdays. We have no other food distribution. In fact, we’re working with Salvation Army to get final approval from their Anchorage office so they can distribute food from here,” Merklin says.
In addition to distributing fresh produce, Merklin wants to make sure the crops will get eaten over the winter. That’s where borough funding comes in. She’s hoping the borough can use federal COVID-19 relief to buy food preservation equipment, temperature-controlled storage, and workshops for residents to teach them how to get the most out of local food resources.
Merklin says she has worked to promote food security for over 15 years, but efforts to address the issue have gained more momentum since the pandemic began.
“People didn’t seem to really take notice or take it seriously because there’s such a heavy reliance on Costco and that type of thing that COVID’s just bringing this topic to the forefront,” Merklin says.
Earlier this year, panic buying made it difficult to find certain products at grocery stores, but the situation has improved in recent months. So far there have been no dramatic disruptions in the supply chain, but there are indications that people are struggling to afford food due to economic hardship.
Demand has increased for food boxes from the Salvation Army and free school lunches. In addition, 44% of the 100 Haines residents who responded to a recent Chilkat Valley Community Foundation survey said that food and nutrition has become an issue in Haines because of COVID-19.
The Haines Economic Development Corporation (HEDC) also requested funding from the borough for food security. They want to get better data on local food production and storage capacity. HEDC board member Sue Chasen says their proposal is intended to help plan for the future.
“All of the land we have in cultivation right now, what can that produce? To me it lays a really good groundwork for seeing what we need now, are we ready? We probably aren’t. And then what we would do next year.”
The borough has put some effort towards getting a better understanding of food security. The Haines Emergency Operations Center estimates that in a time of crisis up to 1,200 people throughout the community would need food assistance each day. They suggested the borough stock up on dry goods and ready-made meals just in case.
When the borough received its first portion of federal COVID-19 relief from the CARES Act, it initially planned to use $200,000 of it to support food security efforts. The assembly moved most of that money to a grant program for local businesses and nonprofits. $60,000 of it was given to Catholic Charities to provide free meals to seniors.
At the time Assembly member Brenda Josephson said that the borough could provide more COVID-19 relief funds for food security at a later date.
“I have every intention of putting that $100,000 in during the next round and I hope get support and hopefully we’ll have a plan for how to spend it effectively.”
Now there is $30,000 remaining for food security from the first CARES Act payment. Although the assembly indicated that it plans to put more money towards food security, it might take a while. The borough is expecting another 2 million dollars from the CARES Act, but they have to spend 80 percent of that first payment first.
Merklin has requested $78,000 to support food security efforts at the Mosquito Lake Community Center. She says she needs funding for equipment as soon as possible.
“I did research on getting refrigerators and freezers and jars and a 20 foot insulated container that would eventually house the food for the winter and all of those things are on back order now. The time to place the order for those things isn’t when you need it. The time to place the order for those things is now.”
Meanwhile, HEDC has requested $12,000 to gather information about local food sources and storage and develop a plan for food security. HEDC and Merklin’s food security proposals were referred to the assembly’s CARES Act Ad hoc committee. It will discuss the proposals at a meeting on July 23 at 6 p.m.