Sitka Food Coop general manager Keith Nyitray and Sitka Conservation Society’s Heather Bauscher load groceries onto the S/V Bagheera in Sitka on Tuesday, April 21st. (Berett Wilber/KCAW)

As the days lengthen and winter gives way to spring, one thing hasn’t changed — the town of Pelican is still without ferry service, at least until June. That’s made grocery shopping difficult and expensive for the town’s residents. Last week [4-21-20], though, the Sitka Food Coop was able to lend them a hand.

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For the Sitka Food Coop, bringing lots of food into town is nothing new. But recently they did something different — ship hundreds of pounds of bulk goods out of Sitka. 

On a rainy afternoon, volunteers from the Coop and the Sitka Conservation Society loaded the food and household supplies onto a sailboat bound for Pelican, a town that’s been cutoff from ferry service since October. 

“They’re just SOL right now,” said Keith Nyitray, general manager of the Food Coop, who helped set up this long distance grocery run. Pelican residents paid the normal prices, but the Coop waived the membership fee for this delivery. 

“So this is just one way we can step in and help them,” he said.

It’s not everyday that the Sitka Food Coop can ship a sailboat full of food out to a remote community. This trip came together because the Sitka Conservation Society was already sending one of their employees up to Pelican on a sailboat, and helped coordinate the order in addition to offering free cargo space on the boat.  

Under normal circumstances, Pelican residents rely on the ferry to bring in bulk food orders from Juneau. But budget cuts and vessel breakdowns have left the town stranded for about six months, forcing residents to rely on expensive air freight and the occasional fisherman making a run to Juneau. 

Celeste Weller, a fisherman and Pelican city council member, helped coordinate the Food Coop order. 

“Some of us were scrambling a little bit, we definitely all ended up paying more for our food freight,” Weller said.

Weller could be describing the situation in any number of remote coastal towns. The winter suspension of Marine Highway service severed supply chains from Kake to Cordova, leaving residents with few options as grocery store shelves ran bare. 

Unloading the supplies in Pelican, a couple days after departing Sitka. (Photo provided by Celeste Weller)

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. As people across the country rushed to stock up on bulk goods and essential items, Weller says it became harder to track down staple foods. 

“Definitely have been seeing the unavailability of certain items come through in our food orders,” she said.

Weller said she has had trouble finding frozen vegetables, rice, and sugar. She used the Coop order to stock up on shelf-stable goods like beans, rice, and dry seasonings. 

Pelican was supposed to get it’s first ferry of the year in May, but the state pushed that sailing back to mid-June. Now, the town is scheduled to get once-a-month summer service by the ferry LeConte. Weller says residents are cautiously hopeful, but aren’t counting their chickens just yet. 

“Well we’re all excited for the possibility,” she said. “But to be honest we’re not holding our breath.”

If the June sailing does go ahead as planned, Weller says she’ll make sure to place a big bulk order from Costco. 

Keith Nyitray, with the Sitka Food Coop, said they would be open to working with other towns that have been struggling without ferries. For now, though, at least one town has a few more items on the menu.