In Kake, the squeeze of national inflation hits residents hard

Chelsea Lewis displays $600 worth of groceries in one her YouTube videos (KCAW/Chelsea Lewis)

As any Alaskan will tell you, life in the 49th state isn’t cheap. But for those living in remote villages, and especially island communities, prices can be astronomical. In Kake, a village of about 500, residents are feeling the squeeze of inflation especially hard, as transportation costs have driven up the price of food and basic necessities to unimaginable levels. For lifelong resident Chelsea Lewis, higher cost of living is something she’s come to terms with.

“Food is one of those things that we kind of, as a family, just know that we’re going to have to spend money on,” she says. “And so that’s one of those things…we try not to think about too much because if you thought about it too much here we’d probably move.”

Lewis and her husband run a YouTube channel chronicling their life in rural Alaska. While their content ranges from Q&As to fishing trips, their most popular videos document their grocery hauls. In one video, with over 40,0000 views, Lewis displays $600 worth of groceries from the local grocery store. The most shocking price tag? A $30 bag of shredded cheese.

But it’s not just cheese that comes with a sticker shock. Even staples like bananas can run her $7 a bunch. As Lewis explains, there are many factors that go into the village’s high food costs.

“The reason why it is so expensive is everything comes to us from Seattle,” says Lewis. “It all goes on the barge, and the barge makes its way to Alaska, and so during that whole time, it’s on the barge it has to be refrigerated. Anything that’s refrigerated or frozen or super heavy is really expensive.”

But it’s not just local circumstances affecting the community’s inflation rate. According to the UN index, international factors are a driving force behind rising food prices everywhere. The price of food reached an all time high this March, as a consequence of global supply chain breakdown, rising energy prices, and the war in Ukraine. In rural Southeast Alaska, where the majority of goods are barged in, higher fuel costs mean higher food costs and fewer available items

Chelsea Lewis and her 2-year-old daughter Bonnie at their home in Kake (KCAW/Tash Kimmell)

“The last time we bought like a gallon of milk, it was like $9. And then what happens here often is that we actually run out of milk,” Lewis says. “My husband went to go get milk on, I think Friday, and they were already out of the regular gallon size. So we had to buy like two quarter small quarter sizes. And then, so that’s even more, so it’s like $10 for two little quarter sizes.”

But even for those who do shop locally, timing is everything. Get to the store too late and you could miss out on even the most basic necessities. Lewis says if she or her husband can’t make it to the store on barge day, her family may go without necessities like milk, eggs, and even produce.

To get around the high prices and scarcity issues, it’s not unheard of for rural Alaskans to travel hundreds of miles to the nearest city to grocery shop. In the Lewis’s case, a shopping trip to Juneau every few months is just another reality of life in rural Alaska.

“We’ll do a big grocery haul, usually at least once a year, if not a couple times a year,” Lewis says. “Right now our fridge is pretty empty of produce because we are waiting until I travel again to buy more. So right now we’re kind of living on frozen produce or canned things.”

Greta Healy, a recent Kake transplant, relocated for a job. She’s learning to live off the village’s limited options, so during a recent trip to the larger neighboring island town of Sitka, she decided to stock up on food.

She shows me her food haul, a tote filled mostly with hardy fruit and vegetables, along with two prized grapefruits.

Greta Healy’s brought a tote of food home with her from neighboring Sitka in an attempt to save money. (KCAW/Tash Kimmell)

“We left to Kake a few days ago and I went shopping at Seamart and Lakeside before getting back here just to save some money on food,” she says. “I was taking the ferry so I could bring a bunch of food with me, which was really sweet….I tried to buy all the food for the next month because I’m not leaving for a month. So I’ll probably have to buy more vegetables here in Kake”

I asked her what her diet would be like if she wasn’t able to access food from other places.

“I would be eating a lot of cabbage and onions and pilot bread and fish and venison,” says Healy. “We didn’t leave for like four months this fall…By the end of it, that was all we were eating. We were eating fish tacos, like, at least three times a week.”

Neal Fried, an economist with the Alaska Department of Labor says the stark differences in cost of living between the urban, rural, and village designated areas in the state are unique. He says while relief from inflation is coming, it may be a ways down the road.

“It’s hard to predict what’s going to happen to inflation,” says Fried. “But when we look at the national numbers, and we look at our numbers, and we look at these most recent numbers, it appears that inflation will remain high, again in 2022. Even if it does begin to moderate towards the end of the year.”

That means that food costs will reach record highs, especially in rural and village communities of Alaska, and unfortunately supply more content for Chelsea Lewis’s YouTube channel.

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