Food justice champions raise considerations

A customer is welcomed at the Downtown Farmers Market. (Photo courtesy Calypso Farm and Ecology Center)
Photo courtesy of Calypso Farm and Ecology Center.
A customer is welcomed at the Downtown Farmers Market.

Nancy Tarnai

Is it possible for people with low incomes to include fresh, locally grown food in their diets? Yes, and if proponents of food justice have their say it’s going to become a common practice.

In 2011 the Downtown Farmers Market, held on Monday evenings in Golden Heart Plaza, began accepting food stamps and in 2013 doubled their value through a grant from the Alaska Division of Agriculture. Susan Willsrud, farm director at Calypso Farm and Ecology Center, was beyond thrilled.

Calypso has been accepting food stamps through its Community Supported Agriculture group, at farm stands and at schoolyard farm stands since 2006. It wasn’t easy to plow through the paperwork to make this happen, but it was worth it for Willsrud. “It’s important from a baseline healthy community perspective,” she said.

Calypso accepts WIC (vouchers for pregnant women and mothers with young children), as does the Tanana Valley Farmers Market and the Downtown Market.

One of the most outspoken advocates of food justice in the Fairbanks area, Willsrud said there is much more to this movement than feeding hungry people healthy food. “Local food is available to middle- and high-income people,” she said. “Low-income people have less access, and as a farmer, I want to help remedy that. Food justice is about everyone having access to good food, growing farms that are ecologically sustainable, and building food systems that are fair for farmers and farm workers.”

Willsrud admits food justice is complicated. “It’s difficult,” she said. “Finding solutions is hard.”

Samantha Castle Kirstein, executive director of the Fairbanks Community Food Bank, said, “I believe that practical food justice is to make sure no one in the Tanana Valley goes to bed or school hungry. I think about the bigger picture, but know that what I do in Fairbanks is all I can do.”

It’s important to roll up one’s sleeves and get to work, not just talk, Kirstein added. “In this community, neighbors help neighbors,” she said. “We always have. The food bank is the local warehouse facility that makes sharing food safe and possible.”

Sarah Stanley, an officer on the board of Breadline Inc.’s Stone Soup Cafe, said access to healthy, delicious food is not a privilege; it is a right. Stone Soup feeds the hungry five mornings a week in downtown Fairbanks. Meals are served with no questions asked of anyone.

Deirdre Helfferich, director of the Ester Seed Library, said a goal of her group is food sovereignty. “In the past food was cared for such that people and plants shaped each other in the place they were,” she said. “People controlled their food. Today we have turned food into a commodity and destroyed that relationship.” The seed library volunteers want to preserve cultural and family traditions around food and agriculture.

Cara Durr, manager of the Alaska Food Coalition, said, “For me, food justice means that everyone has access to the foods they want and need, access to reasonably priced, nutritious and culturally acceptable foods. This means giving communities the tools they need to harvest and grow their own food, and to import good food at reasonable prices. It also means giving people information on how to choose and prepare healthy foods. One thing the coalition has done this year is request funding for a Farmers Market Quest Program, which would allow SNAP recipients to use their benefits to purchase fresh local food, even doubling their dollars on certain days. This is a great food justice project that would increase access to nutritious foods for low income people.”

In looking to the future, Calypso’s Willsrud said, “I hope over the long term the food system will change. For now food stamps are an appropriate form of government support and the doubling program is excellent.”

A recipient of food stamps, Alexxa Cruson, said when she first learned about the doubling program she was relieved. “Organic food is not just a health choice. It goes deeper into a lifestyle and a foundation for value building. Being able to stretch my food budget and more importantly use my benefits at the farmers market enabled me to learn so much more about the importance of fresh, local, organic and seasonal food.

“I take pride in buying from the source and knowing that my purchase is directly supporting the kind of agriculture that I want to ingest,” Cruson said. “I started going to co-ops more and began reading about gardening in urban settings.” The doubling program inspired her to pursue a job at Calypso. She worked last summer as the assistant school garden coordinator. She hopes more farms will reach out to food stamp beneficiaries.

“Not only is it a good source of income funded by the Farm Bill but it is also important to build the base of consumers from poverty up,” Cruson said. “Good food is for everyone. Because eating local, fresh and organic is a lifestyle for me I didn’t look at my purchase as cutting into my budget as my budget was for food. But did we run short, did we skip meals, did we have to make compromises? Absolutely. The thing is every family on benefits and a startling number who are not are making those same choices and they have little to do with whether they buy local and organic. But through those choices I have learned ways to adapt such as buying wilted greens at a discount and blanching them and freezing them.

“Empty calories rarely make into my house for two reasons, first health, second money,” Cruson said. “Every dollar is a meal in my daughter’s stomach that is going to nourish her into an adult who thinks for herself and has the health to ensure her success.”

Willsrud said, “From an ethical perspective, food justice is a win-win. Everybody facing hunger has a different story. We need all the pieces to support our food system that feeds everyone.”

This column is provided as a service by the UAF School of Natural Resources and Extension and the Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station. Nancy Tarnai is the school and station’s public information officer. She can be reached at