– I recently had the chance to travel to Barrow, Alaska this past week as a part of my duties as an active duty Coast Guardsman. I was sent there to test a satellite-based broadband internet solution to see if it would work that far north. That particular device had never been tested so far north before. This, of course, is mostly irrelevant to this blog post. Mostly since I am writing as the owner and founder of Golden Gate Organics and not as a Coast Guardsmen, although I must say that each job has its perks. Not the least of which is free organic produce and traveling to the land of the midnight sun, but I digress.
After spending about a week just north of the Arctic Circle, I could not help but notice both the price and quality of food available in this small town of 4,200 residents. For instance, I had breakfast at a quaint little restaurant called Pepe’s, three times. On Monday I had; two eggs, hash browns, three pieces of bacon, a slice of orange, two pieces of toast (with margarine not butter), and a pancake. To wash it down, I had two cups of coffee and a glass of orange juice. The cup of coffee was $2 since I had it with a meal, $3 originally. My glass of orange juice was the typical size with a clear red color that you would find at any greasy-spoon restaurant, and cost $5. The whole meal (with tip) cost me close to $30. Now I understand that connecting a small town on the edge of the Arctic Ocean with no roads from the outside and having to have all sustenance either flown in or shipped in during the great summer sea lift that prices may be a bit high there. What disappointed me most about the food is that there was almost not fruit or produce with any meal. Even the First Lady Michelle Obama has done a public service announcement about eating a half plate full of veggies or fruit for each meal. The USDA has rewritten the food pyramid to reflect this too.
But word travels slow to the Arctic Circle and understandably so. I mean they have broadband Internet and 150 cable channels, but no fresh produce. It makes sense to me. Of course those are bits and bytes and produce is more tangible. With six months of darkness followed by six months of sunlight, it can be difficult to grow your own garden there, let alone a full farm – especially when summertime lows dip into the 30’s through much of the summer and lows of 18 below throughout the rest of the year are normal.
As I write this from the airport in Fairbanks, AK it’s close to midnight and daylight is still coming in through the sound-insulated windows. I have a thought – I wonder if a giant green house could be erected in Barrow? Nothing fancy, just a greenhouse to provide fruits and veggies year round for a small town on the edge of the world. Would the heating and electricity demands of such a green house be to much of a demand on their local utilities? Would a facility like that even be possible that far north in such an inhospitable climate? I don’t know but it would be worth the health of the residents to investigate it.
Some Background on Barrow, AK – Barrow, AK is the municipal capitol of the North Slope of Alaska. The entire North Slope covers something like 9000 Acres of the northwestern and northern tundra of Alaska. I was fortunate enough to tour the Inupiat Heritage Center while I was there. The heritage center is a museum chronicling the history of the native people for the last couple hundred years. I went into Alaska, and especially the Arctic Tundra, with my own visions and ideas of Eskimos, igloos and dog sledding, courtesy of elementary and grade school teachers many years ago. My visit to the heritage center was enlightening. When I first arrived in Barrow, I noticed that the roads were all dirt. It looked like a dirty, dusty, poor place. Of which it is. What I didn’t know was that the locals hunt caribou, wolf, and foxes in the summer. They do this for food and furs. The latter of which is for sale for prices between $25 and $600 at the Fur Shop in Barrow (which is the same place I bought my wife, Tiffany, and I a couple of sweatshirts; I did my duties as a tourist and contributed to the local economy of which my hotel, rental car, and meals were of no doubt also a vital part). The winter brings the activity of which it is most critical to the native residents: whaling.
For hundreds, and no doubt, thousands of years the residents of the North Slope have hunted whales from the edge of the Arctic Ocean, and they still do! As I was sitting in the lobby of King Eider’s Inn surfing Twitter on my iPad, I overheard a Paleontologist talking about his “best interview yet!” with a 13-year-old boy in town. The boy had apparently killed his first Caribou at age 6 and was now teaching younger residents how to hunt. I saw many pictures in the heritage center of children participating in the great whale hunt and subsequent butchering, sharing, and celebratory feast of the hunt. It was not brutal or savage as presented, but a vital part of survival on the North Slope. The whale hunt was a part of the people. It kept them sustained throughout the winter. They used every part of the whale from the meat for food to the intestines to make into bags and as waterproof shoe linings. It was amazing to see how they used the entire whale. They also had much respect for the whales they hunted. I learned that they do not speak during the hunt and kill of the great swimming mammal. Only after the whale is caught, killed, and a prayer is said do the hunters celebrate their catch and begin the community involved harvesting of the giant carcass.
With as big a part of the local heritage and survival that the heritage center presented the whale hunts, I never did see any whale food on any local menus. I did see steaks, hamburgers, tacos, Korean food, Chinese food, sushi, and even lobster in just about every restaurant. Keep in mind there is no more than about five restaurants to eat at in Barrow. Even now I am trying to think back to remember if I ever saw a salad on a menu. It may have been at one of the restaurants. The quality of food in Barrow was mediocre at best. The only thing I could rave about would be East Coast Pizza. I had a calzone from there and it was great! I was happy that it had onions and the sauce had pieces of tomatoes. I wouldn’t imagine anything offered during my trip was organic.
Moral of the Story – All of us living in the Bay Area are extremely spoiled and do not even realize it. We have seemingly limitless options for healthy, natural and organic food. Barrow has zero. Too often, we get so caught up in our daily lives that we take for granted the abundance of services and options available to us. I know I did. A trip like that really reminds me about my humble beginnings and where I grew up. It puts into perspective the options available to me. I am a lucky person. I have everything I need and then some. But going to Barrow for a week really made me conscious of what I have available to me. Up there I said to a co-worker of mine, “If I lived up here I would gain 15 pounds in about a month just because of my diet.” And I still believe it.
I am happy to be going back home to Alameda. I am excited to get back to Tiffany, my friends, and my pets. Seeing the tundra was an awesome experience for me and one I will not soon forget. I hope that everyone reading this will take a second to reflect about their eating habits and think; “What is preventing me from eating better?” Is it cost? Is it time? Is it laziness? No matter what the answer, you can always make a conscious decision to start now. Eat more veggies and less meat. Eat organic and local. Purchase cage free eggs and meat that was raised without steroids or growth hormones. Your choice is your vote on health. We can make a difference in how we all live and eat. I honestly believe this or I wouldn’t be writing it. Please let me know your thoughts on this.