Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Distant Markets: Shopping Perspectives

When I first moved to Crescent City, people asked me how I liked it with great hesitation, as if they were assuming that my first impressions would be terrible. But for the four years leading up to moving here, we had lived in King Salmon, AK, (population: 400) and Cima, CA, (population: 3) in the middle of the Mojave National Preserve. To me, the prospect of being able to buy a gallon of milk without a) spending eight dollars (King Salmon) or b) driving 75 miles to Las Vegas (Cima) was a joyous prospect. Four grocery stores! In town!

It was practically a miracle.

King Salmon, where we lived, is on the Alaska Peninsula, leading out to the Aleutian Island chain. It's about 16 miles inland from Bristol Bay along the Naknek River. The only place you can drive from King Salmon is Naknek, sixteen miles away; otherwise, it's a fly-in, fly-out community. Students in South Naknek fly across the mouth of the Naknek River for school every day. They do isolated and rural to the extreme there.

This is the airport we fly in and out of. You can, in fact, see almost the entire business district of King Salmon in this photo. Our summer restaurant is next door to the airport, our bank, National Park Service offices, and a social services office are in the long building across the street. The building in the upper right, cut off at the edge of the picture, is our supermarket (left hand side of the building) and liquor store (right hand side, separate entrance).

This is downtown Cima. The left hand side of the building is the post office (closed permanently by USPS a few months before we moved), the right side is a small store with beer, soft drinks, candy, and chips, open on demand while the post office still functioned. We lived about a mile away. Our nearest neighbors were five miles further north. This is our neighborhood, a collection of abandoned small ranching houses at the junction of several unnamed, sandy dirt roads:

There were many things I loved about living in both King Salmon and Cima. There are things I miss deeply. Grocery shopping is not one of them. There is no real joy in driving an hour and a half to Las Vegas in 105 degree weather, with a toddler, to hit several stores, a library, a park, and every other possible service in one day. Anchorage is also not that enjoyable when a day in Anchorage means going to CostCo, Fred Meyer, and New Sagaya (ethnic and whole foods store), followed by scrounging for cardboard boxes, packing up the food and other purchases, and making a trip to the air freight company.

We had two things going for us: we had reliable transportation and we usually had enough cash available to do two or three months worth of shopping at a time. Without that, I'm not sure how we would have maintained a varied diet in either location. I once paid $14 for four ears of corn shrink-wrapped to a styrofoam tray because it was the only fresh produce in the store -- fruit or veg -- that looked edible and I was low on frozen stuff at home.

So after these experiences, the grocery shopping in Crescent City was enough to make a very good first impression.

All this leads up to my first visit to Pearson's Grocery in Weitchpec. I had driven through Weitchpec maybe a year earlier, on my husband's whim during my first trip to the Bald Hills. This time, I was going to Weitchpec, not through it. When I walked through the store, I was reminded very much of our store in King Salmon. There was maybe a little less produce at Pearson's, but prices were lower than they were in King Salmon. Both are typical stores for rural, isolated places: not much selection, limited fresh foods, high prices, a strong emphasis on prepared, shelf-stable foods.

A larger problem in both communities is that many families are not as lucky as mine. They don't have reliable transportation. They don't have a job that occasionally takes them to places with better stores. They don't have cash reserves that let them stock up when they do get to bigger, cheaper, better-stocked stores.

So how do we make health happen in communities like King Salmon, Cima, and Weitchpec? What changes can be made to bring healthy, affordable food options to places that are way off the beaten path? How do we guarantee that a child growing up sixty, seventy, three hundred miles away from the nearest full-service grocery store grows up with the same nutritional opportunities as someone who can walk to a Safeway or a Whole Foods or a Northcoast Co-op?

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