Klukwan’s Community Garden just made their first harvest of the season. The goal for these gardeners is to keep fresh food accessible.
Jami Campbell is snapping bright green leaves off of a Brussels sprout plant in the community garden outside Klukwan’s tribal office. The leaves are about the size of dinner plates, much larger than the sprouts. She picks low leaves that are starting to droop into the soil and points out the small nodes of developing sprouts.
She’s the community garden “lead,” which means she’s in charge of organizing all the volunteers and keeping up with the harvest.
“So I’m the garden lead,” she laughs, “but I don’t claim to know it all. We really work hard at bringing everyone’s knowledge together to make this garden happen.”
At 9 a.m. every Tuesday she tends the community garden in Klukwan. The fruits and vegetables are thriving. Thick-leafed kale and tall corn stalks give way to unfurling orbs of cabbage. Tomatoes glisten inside the greenhouse and a riot of volunteer raspberries bursts over the path that leads to the potato patch.
This is a mellow Tuesday because she hosted a community dinner on Monday night. The goal was to introduce residents to familiar recipes that incorporate locally grown produce.
“Just because you can grow something good doesn’t mean someone knows how to use it,” she said.
It was a chance to enjoy the fruits of this season’s labor: kale, carrots, beets, potatoes, cucumbers, and tomatoes. About twenty people showed up, which is a great turn out for a town of fewer than 100 residents.
“We definitely had people trying foods for the first time. So the garden has kind of become this place where it’s safe to try something new and expand a palette,” she said.
Studies from the last few years show a link between food insecurity and diabetes, obesity, and other diseases—especially in Alaska Native communities. Campbell says local awareness about those issues keeps the garden going. Locally grown crops build food security.
The garden was created in 2005 to address that very issue. Lani Hotch was serving as an Americorps volunteer with the Building Initiatives for Rural Health program. She conducted a community survey and found that residents greatest health needs were better nutrition and more exercise. The garden was aimed at addressing both of those.
Cooking together is one way for healthy eating habits to take root. Another is getting familiar with the garden at any early age. Students from Klukwan’s school are active volunteers in the garden.
“They love the cucumber hunt, to see if there any ready to pick,” said their teacher, Justina Hotch.
She incorporated Tlingit language lessons into garden time as part of the Global Heritage Foundation summer program. She says the kids especially liked learning to make green kale smoothies and yank up carrots…sometimes even before the carrots were quite ready to harvest.
“They were really searching for any carrots, that were growing too close together. So they could you know, thin them out,” she laughed.
The students helped distribute the harvest to Klukwan’s elders and volunteers. But after everyone got their share, Jami says there was some kale leftover that nobody wanted.
“And so we started doing something called a kale bomb,” she laughed.
“Where we just would put a recipe in a bag with a handful of kale and leave it on someone’s door and and and hope they tried it.”
It seems to have worked, Campbell says she hasn’t had any kale left over recently.
Campbell also has help from Jenny Humphrey, a University of Alaska Fairbanks student. She’s working on a minor in sustainable agriculture.
“I’ve been kind of leaning more and more towards food security route and food sovereignty,” she said.
She crouches in the squash, plucking slugs off the leaves and weeding. Humphrey grew up in the area and is back for the summer on a research scholarship to study food accessibility.
“Especially here in Alaska, you know, if, if the ferries go on strike, and the barges don’t come for whatever reason… You know, we’re a little bit screwed,” she said.
She’s been interviewing locals about whether or not they feel like they have enough access to healthy foods, things like traditional subsistence foods as well as fruits and vegetables.
She’s got some ideas from talking to people who live here, like stocking the local store with locally grown produce, using a root cellar to store summer’s harvest for winter meals, and propagating wild berries in the village. After graduation she’s considering coming back to work in the garden. It’s been around for over a decade, but she thinks it can keep growing.