The Last Link in the Logistical Food Chain

The logistical process of bringing supplies to Western Alaska villages means you will not always find what you need at the grocery store.

Shipping times mean fresh food spoils quickly, so canned and dry items are much cheaper to stock than fresh goods. Produce is often unavailable. For business owners, keeping village shelves filled can be unpredictable.

“By the time I send in my order, usually it comes in four or six, maybe seven days, but for my last order it’s been a week overdue, sometimes two weeks overdue until I put in another order,” said Shelley Pete, the general manager of the Stebbins Native Store.

When the community chose to close its borders due to a coronavirus case this summer, some were concerned over food security. Normally, Stebbins residents have the option to drive a four-wheeler on the twelve-mile road to St. Michael. There, the Alaska Commercial Co Store has a more robust supply chain.

A fishing net spread out on the beach in Stebbins. The village relied on subsistence foods this summer.

Villagers found a solution by setting up a checkpoint at the border of the two communities, where grocery orders could be dropped off and picked up by residents from Stebbins.

Earlier this spring, one of the bush airlines serving Stebbins with cargo and passenger service went bankrupt. But Pete said even before that, the store received shipments of moldy produce or food that had thawed and gone rancid.

Stebbins resident John Rivers told listeners if there is another lockdown, he will be relying on his freezer that he keeps stocked with subsistence foods instead of the grocery store.

The situation is not unique. Teller, a community close to Nome, also had a small coronavirus outbreak. The regional health corporation sent out care packages that included things like eggs, peanut butter, and potatoes, encouraging Teller residents to get tested.

As both communities are without running water, they have also received shipments of hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies to help curb the contagion.

Image at top: Thinly stocked shelves in a Bering Strait village grocery store. The cereal pictured costs $8.29 or $9.19. The same cereal costs $3.79 in Anchorage.