Tackling food sustainability, in outer space and on the Kenai Peninsula
What does NASA have to do with food sustainability?
That’s the question Challenger Learning Center of Alaska CEO Marnie Olcott answered at the start of Wednesday’s Food Security and Sustainability workshop, hosted at the Kenai space education center.
“NASA’s always been interested in: ‘How do we get a good, viable food source for people who may be traveling farther into space.’ Not only that, but they also have satellites on Earth.” Olcott said. “NASA studies Earth more than it studies space, and they actually have I-can’t-tell-you-how-many satellites up in the air that are actually looking down on Earth, gathering data, and sharing that data with our local farmers and producers.”
The workshops are funded by a community grant from NASA and are designed to help Kenai Peninsula locals increase their own food sustainability. The series of three workshops began in May, and covers gardening, wild harvesting, and food preservation.
More than 30 people turned out for the free workshop, which brought biologists, rangers, tribal members and local experts to the center to speak about harvesting Alaska’s natural resources.
The event kicked off with an introduction from Olcott, who said fears about food access in Alaska, spurred by pandemic supply chain issues, have inspired lots of interest in farming and wild harvesting on the peninsula. But that interest predates the pandemic, too.
“Farming on the Kenai Peninsula grew by 60% in the last five years. The increase in farms is well over the national average, but even moreso, over the average in Alaska,” she said.
Many presentations focused on Alaska’s most famous wild-harvested resource: salmon. Shannon Martin from the Kenai River Sportfishing Association reviewed ways to access salmon in the Peninsula’s rivers and lakes, while Colton Lipka from the Department of Fish and Game illuminated the internal processes of regulation-setting for salmon fishing.
Alaska Wildlife Trooper Peter Heid talked through fishing and hunting licensing and regulations.
“We always have to remember that abiding by the regulations and the laws that are put out for hunting and fishing in the state of Alaska are very important,” Heid said. “I see a lot of super young faces here; if we as adults want to make sure that this resource continues to be for our children and our childrens’ children, it’s important that we abide by these regulations, that way they can still have the resource later.”
Sandy Wilson of the Salamatof Native Association spoke about tribal fishing and preservation methods, and offered samples of her own smoked salmon, to rave reviews from attendees.
For the final presentation of the morning, Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Biologist Matt Bowser gave the audience advice for identifying and harvesting edible fungi on the peninsula.
“Mushrooms are notoriously erratic. They don’t always come up at the same times. But it’s usually after a good rain, that’s when it’s best to go out and check again for mushrooms, even if you were there a little bit ago,” he said.
Bowser imparted some knowledge for those looking to get into the mushroom foraging life: he said to always carry a wicker basket in your car for spontaneous foraging, and always carry a knife to cut off any dirty parts of the mushroom while harvesting.
Presentations in the afternoon focused on hunting, seaweed foraging and ways to use foraged material for functions like medicine, clothing and cleaning products.
The final workshop in this series of three will focus on food preservation techniques. It hasn’t yet been scheduled.
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