Bill may expand Alaska Food Hub offerings
Buying and selling local food online may become easier. A bill in the House would allow Alaskans to sell items with a low potential for food-borne illness without a permit online. It would also make other changes to support local food.
Those involved in the Alaska Food Hub, an online farmers market, are excited about the bill’s potential to empower small food producers and expand community access to fresh food. But some are concerned about lowering the threshold for selling food online.
Tessa Drais runs His + Hers Baking out of her home in Homer. She specializes in gluten and dairy free cooking.
“I mainly do cupcakes and cookies,” she said. “There’s a couple of quick breads in there especially when we hit zucchini seasons. I'll definitely be doing a lot of the zucchini breads and things like that.”
Drais caters special events and birthdays. For the last few years, she’s been a vendor at the farmer’s market, but that can sometimes be a gamble.
“Going to farmers market with all of my products I spent the last day and a half making, and then it be a rainy day and no one wants to go to the farmer's market, that's a little disheartening when I put so much energy into these products,” she said. “And then again not making money and having to go home and eat it all.”
Drais expressed interest in selling on the Alaska Food Hub, formerly known as the Kenai Food Hub, which sells local food on the Kenai Peninsula and in Anchorage online.
It’s like a digital farmer’s market. Every week, food-producers like Drais can list products for sale. Customers choose the products and at the end of the week, those products are dropped off at a central location in communities for customers to pick up.
This could make it easier for people like Drais who could prepare to make the exact amount of pastries she sells.Right now, there’s one major way that selling products online is different than in person: you need a permit to sell food online.
“You would need a DEC (Department of Environmental Conservation) approved kitchen which has a variety of specifications on dish cleaning and food handling and all the sorts of things,” Director of the Alaska Food Hub Robbi Mixon said.
She said that is a lot of work for people making small batches of food, which have little potential for food-borne illness. These are called cottage foods and they include pastries, jams and pickled vegetables, among other items.
“We've been allowed to sell cottage food at farmers markets for a number of years,” she said. “I personally don't know of any issues that have come out of being allowed to do that. I mean there certainly might be a few cases here and there but within our market, we've never had any issues.”
But some do have concerns. Lorinda Lhotka is with the Department of Environmental Conservation.
“We require that be a face to face and in-person sale transaction so that the consumer could meet the producer and ask them questions about ingredients or to meet the person so they can make a decision whether they wanted to buy the food from an uninspected producer,” she said.
The department is also concerned about current language that suggests loosening regulations on all foods, including high-risk food.
“It would allow raw milk, Alaskan shellfish and salmon and seafood products to be included and to be exempt from regulation,” Lhotka said.
But the sponsor of the bill doesn’t see it that way. Representative Geran Tarr’s office says they are going to change the language of the bill to make it clear that it would just apply to cottage foods.
Even with cottage foods, there will still be rules.
“Any vendor that sells these types of products still has to label everything with that notification that hey, these products are not made in DEC approved kitchen,” Mixon said.
This bill only applies to small-scale producers. If producers are making more than $25,000 annully, they have to get a permit. But Mixon says this bill goes beyond just helping people selling food.
“It would allow greater access to fresh food to the community,” she said. “It helps support local sustainable economies and keeps money within communities.”
The bill would make other changes too. It would allow the state to collect fees from their promotional merchandise with the Alaska Grown trademark on it. It would also give the state and school districts the ability to purchase local food, even when it is 15 percent more expensive than other foods. The current limit is at 7 percent. Lastly, it would ease civil liability when farms have tourists visiting them.
However, for people who work at the Food Hub, the most significant change would be allowing more local producers to participate in its online market.