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Fighting hunger in Homer

Alex Stuart has been volunteering with the Homer Community Food Pantry for a few years. On Monday, March 13, the pantry distributed 124 boxes of food to individuals and families at the Homer United Methodist Church.
Hope McKenney
Alex Stuart has been volunteering with the Homer Community Food Pantry for a few years. On Monday, March 13, the pantry distributed 124 boxes of food to individuals and families at the Homer United Methodist Church.

Afternoon light streamed through the windows of the Homer United Methodist Church as a swirl of volunteers packed up food, plastic crates and folding tables. Helping direct the flow of activity, Laura McBride, the coordinator of the Homer Community Food Pantry, paused to talk.

“We set up a whole store and deli every Monday, and then break it down,” McBride said.

With a statewide backlog in providing SNAP benefits, the state recently reallocated nearly $1.7 million from emergency funds to help alleviate hunger. McBride said the funding will provide some much-needed food assistance for communities around the state.

One immediate goal is to distribute bulk deliveries of non-perishable goods through a coalition of organizations statewide.

“Food Bank of Alaska can send 1,000 pounds of dry shelf-stable goods to any agency that applies for temporary partnership with [them],” McBride explained.

Hope McKenney

That means in addition to the Homer food pantry, local communities like Nanwalek, Seldovia and Port Graham could apply to receive deliveries of food directly. McBride said the Homer food pantry is also prepared to help store those goods if smaller communities aren’t set up to handle that much food at once.

As the Homer food pantry faces a recent rise in local food costs, McBride said the new funding will be a huge help — being able to get food through the Food Bank of Alaska will help communities get better prices on canned goods from distributors in the Lower 48.

Bette Seaman, a weekly volunteer who is also on the board of the food pantry, said she’s already noticing the impact of the funding, as the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank, in Soldotna, recently sent a truck down to Homer with additional supplies.

“We got a lot of food from them, and we haven't gotten food from them in quite some time because their stores were down,” Seaman said. “So it's looking up, things are looking up.”

Nevertheless, this is a hard time of year, Seaman said. The food pantry’s budget has tightened with higher food prices, and there is less fresh produce available through the winter — whereas in the summer, gardeners and local farms regularly donate vegetables.

“We've had less food because we had to cut back on what we were buying. We've been getting less food from the food bank, because they've had less food,” Seaman said. “It's just kind of tough all the way around.”

Hope McKenney

In addition to more fresh produce, Seaman said the food pantry really appreciates donations of local proteins — like frozen game and fish.

It’s those kinds of local food connections that Robbi Mixon, the Homer-based director of the Alaska Food Policy Council, is trying to build. The organization recently wrapped up a two-year project aimed at creating a statewide food action plan.

“We set up regional nodes throughout the state to really drill down on what our communities have, what we have to share and what we could use,” Mixon said.

There was a lot of interest from communities around the state in creating more infrastructure to support food storage for local farms, and a desire for more community education around food systems — like the new sustainable agriculture program at the Kachemak Bay Campus in Homer, or educational programs through the Homer Soil and Water Conservation District.

The Alaska Farmers Market Association, where Mixon also serves as executive director, recently secured a half-million-dollar grant to match food benefits like SNAP and WIC, helping recipients to shop at local farmers markets around the state.

“That's great for them, and great for our farmers,” Mixon said.

In February, Mixon was part of a coalition that flew to Juneau for an annual food security week, where people working with food banks, farmers markets and farmers themselves met with legislators to discuss food access in Alaska.

“Addressing hunger issues and building a more secure system seems to be very bipartisan and seems like there's support from all sides of the aisle,” Mixon said. “Which is pretty wonderful.”

Yet the $1.7 million for immediate food aid is a temporary stopgap for a much larger issue. Kate Burkhart is the Alaska State Ombudsman. Her office independently assesses complaints against state agencies, and fielded a floodof claims about delays in SNAP food assistance benefits starting last summer.

A class action lawsuit filed against the state in January prevents Burkart’s office from addressing more food assistance claims, and she suggests reaching out to Alaska Legal Services for help.

Burkhart said the tenuous situation highlights the limits of community food security in Alaska, especially in rural communities which might not have access to food banks.

“If you live in a community without that resource, we struggle with where to refer [people] for food security,” she said. “I think it has really highlighted that the safety net for folks who are food insecure is being pulled very thin right now.”

Here in Homer, the food pantry regularly distributes around 150 boxes of food to families and individuals each week. McBride said they are always looking for volunteers to help at the food pantry, especially for setting up in the morning and cleaning up in the afternoons.

To contribute to the food pantry, Bette Seaman said there is a donation bin for food in the lobby of the Methodist Church, or people can drop off non-perishable goods, fresh produce or other frozen and refrigerated foods from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Mondays while the food pantry is open — though earlier is better for fresh produce.

“We try to be really nice at the food pantry, we try to be really compassionate,” Seaman said. “We treat everybody the same, and everybody with care.”

For more information on how to volunteer, donate food or support the food pantry financially, go to

Local News Kenai Peninsula NewsHomer Community Food PantryKenai Peninsula Food Bankfood security
Sean is a photographer and writer originally from Minnesota, and very happy to now call Homer home. His work has been published in Scientific American, Grist, HuffPost, Undark, and Granta, among others.

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