The high cost of food may be affecting the way residents of Sitka eat. A study published last year found that 75 percent of Sitkans eat less than 5 fruits and vegetables per day–only a fraction of the recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But the Sitka Local Foods Network — the author of that report — wants to change that number. They’re teaching families how to bring the produce aisle to their yards through gardening classes.

KCAW’s Vanessa Walker reports.

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Rebecca Kubacki’s is tending to a garden bed housed in a large, rectangular box outside of her home on Halibut Point Road.

A colorful assortment of vegetables are growing, like lettuce, different kinds of kale and even potatoes. A couple of feet away from that, rhubarb leaves are sprouting out of the ground next to chain link fence.

It’s one of several sites in Sitka where families are getting free gardening classes through the

Michelle Putz shows Rebecca Kubacki how to harvest lettuce. (KCAW photo/ Vanessa Walker)

Michelle Putz shows Rebecca Kubacki how to harvest lettuce. (KCAW photo/ Vanessa Walker)

Sitka Local Foods Network.

They’re a non-profit advocacy group that works to increase the amount of locally harvested food in the Southeast Alaskan diet.

Board member Michelle Putz teaches families how to grow their own fruits and vegetables. Most families who participate in the program are first-time farmers.

“The idea behind it is finding families who would like to grow food and have never grown food themselves. And teaching them how to do it from the ground up,” she said.

They start off with hearty crops that grow well in Sitka’s climate, just like the ones thriving here in Kubacki’s yard.

For her, it’s all about taking control over the food her family eats.

“Because it’s inexpensive. And you don’t have to wonder or worry about pesticides. It’s natural. It’s yours. You’re doing it,” she said.

Putz travels from home to home with a specific lesson plan based on how far the family is in their gardening expertise. And, the classes are open to the public.

Today Putz is at Kubacki’s house. Her garden has been growing for a while now, and it’s time to start picking some of it–which coincides with Putz’s lesson for today–how to harvest.

Putz took her through every vegetable in her garden and showed her how to pick the vegetables out without harming the roots or wasting any soil.

In the middle of the lesson, another community member drives up to attend the class.

For the food network, it’s about introducing more people to the art of home harvesting. You might say that the program is growing organically.

Last year, they started off with two families. Now, there are six.

Lisa Sadleir-Hart, president of the Sitka Local Foods Network, says these gardening programs are a road to self-sufficiency in a place where the cost of groceries are high.


A portion of Rebecca Kubacki’s front yard garden. It was grown with the help of the Sitka Local Foods Network. (KCAW photo/Vanessa Walker)

“Food is very expensive in our community,” she said.  “Between 2003 and 2011, we saw
about a 40 percent increase in our food prices in Sitka. And so, when you have to think about extending your food dollars for a month, especially if you’re living on the edge, and have a very tight food budget. Or maybe you’re living with a food stamps allocation, fruits and vegetables aren’t going to make it on your place very often,” she said.

Part of the reason why it’s expensive to buy food in Sitka is its location.

“We live on an island community had have become very reliant on outside sources for food,” Sadlier-Hart said.

And the consequences for that was made all too real after a 2014 study coordinated by Sadleir-Hart called the Sitka Community Food Assessment. That revealed that 75% of Sitkans eat less than 5 fruits and vegetables a day. The current recommendation from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention is 5-9 servings.

From a historical standpoint, Sadleir-Hart says it’s difficult to say for certain how Sitkans subsisted off of the land in the past.

“We know that we had, for instance, the USDA experimental farm and so they were doing a lot of research about what was possible to grow,” she said. “People really were vegetable gardeners and they had to do that by necessity. Because we didn’t have regular barge service. We didn’t have regular jet service that was bringing food, especially perishable foods here. And so people had to be very self reliant,” she said.

Since times have changed, working one-on-one with families may be a solution to the problem.

“The solution for us maybe helping people get more self-reliant. And really realize that there are things every household in Sitka can easily grow for themselves,” Sadlier-Hart said.

And with the garden box in front of Rebecca Kubacki’s house, she’s able to do just that.
By the time the lesson’s over, her bowl is filled to the brim with leafy greens, and there’s still more to pick the next day. Michelle Putz hopes that these families continue to grow food even after the program ends.

“My hope is that the folks really enjoyed it and want to do it in the future,” Putz said.

It may take more than a well-kept garden bed to make food more accessible to everybody, but the Sitka Local Foods Network hopes that education is the right place to start.