Out There

bush groceries

Posted in teaching by Pete on February 8, 2012

I help answer questions over at the ATP Forum, which is a place for prospective teachers in Alaska to ask questions.  A common question people have is about budgeting for food, as they try and get a better idea of what a move to Alaska would mean for them financially.  I’ve put a lot of thought and work into grocery shopping in the past and thought I’d put up some of that on here and tag it as ‘advice’ so it might be helpful to someone doing this kind of research.

If you choose to shop in a major hub like Bethel, Kotzebue, Dillingham, Nome, Barrow, etc you will probably have a couple of stores to choose from, and they may not look very different from a smallish lower-48 grocery store except for the prices.  Here is a youtube video someone made of a recent trip to the AC store in Bethel.  And here is a link to the weekly specials for Swanson’s grocery store that appear in the Delta Discovery newspaper. These give you a small idea of pricing.  Of course if you live in an outlying village as we do then you need to pay another fee to have the boxed groceries delivered to an air carrier and sent to your village (our village is only a 15 minute flight and the fee is about $.50 per pound), or have a friend pick up the box for you.  Both AC and Swansons will shop your list for you and box it for no extra fee if you fax or call them with what you want, and pay by credit card over the phone.  They are both based out of state.  I believe Swanson’s is owned by Omni Enterprises out of WA state, and AC (Alaska Commercial company, which has quite a colorful history in the state dating back to the Russian days when they had a monopoly on the Pribolof seal harvest – try google) is now based in Canada.

Of course you can also shop in your village itself, which helps the local economy.  Village stores vary widely in quality and selection, based on factors like distance and number of flights from Anchorage, and management.  I’ve seen villages with three stores, while others have none.  Most common is one or two stores.  Some village stores have surprisingly good quality of dairy and produce, while others have only a few half-rotten choices.  But usually there is not a lot of variety, and things run out of stock on a regular basis, as in “there are no eggs today.”  It can be difficult or impossible to get a lot of dairy items like milk, cream, whipping cream, cheeses, ice cream, etc.  Some village stores (esp in larger villages) have these things, but most do not.  Same goes for veggies.  Our store in Kasigluk most often has root vegetables such as potatoes, carrots, or onions, but also tomatoes and cabbage  and apples are fairly common, though the quality might be understandably below what you’re used to “outside.”

Our local store pricing is actually not very different from the prices in Bethel.  This is because the cost to mail goods from Anchorage to Bethel is the same as mailing from Anchorage to Kasigluk.  The main difference is in the variety and availability of what you might be looking for.  As for cost, it is expensive, no doubt about it, although if you have a line of credit with the store and pay it off in full every month you enjoy a 10% discount on everything.  But the price is still high, particularly for items that cannot be mailed such as bleach.

As an example, I recently brought in a “hazmat” barge order from Anchorage consisting of paint, bleach, motor oil, fire extinguishers, etc and sold off the bleach and motor oil in order to cover the cost of buying and shipping the paint which we were using to spruce up an old school bunkbed our kids started using as well as some other stuff like painting our conex container.  Anyway the bleach at costco in Anchorage was $6.24 for a 2-pack of clorox jugs each weighing 182 oz.  One of those jugs sells for $47.31 at our store in Kasig (yes, about 15x as much).  With barge fees my total cost ended up being about $8 per jug to Bethel, and then I found a way to get everything to Kasigluk and sold them for $20 each and all 20 of them sold in a week or so.

One avenue for fresh produce that has become very popular in the bush lately is Full Circle Farms and other CSAs.  It ain’t cheap.  We pay something like $60 or $70 per box of fresh produce.  But the quality is outstanding, as is the web-based interface where you select exactly what you want for each delivery.  We get mangoes, kale, lettuce, spinach, tomatoes, fresh thyme, oranges, kiwis, zucchini, pie crusts…you get the idea.  It is Expensive with a capital E but in my view worth it when you consider how difficult/impossible it is to get otherwise.  We get a box every other week for our family of 4.

Another recent option that has come along is buying groceries on amazon.  When we first came here in 2003 this was an option, but then they changed the rules so groceries could not ship to AK.  But just a year or two ago they made it available again.  Generally speaking this option is a little more expensive than paying a company in Anchorage to buy and mail it to you.  But it is easier, and sometimes the prices are competitive or even better than if you go through Anchorage.  For example I’ve found that the prices for cereal are quite competitive with what you would pay a middle man to buy it at Costco and mail it to your village.  But on the other hand, laundry soap is far cheaper via Anchorage.  Some of this has to do with shipping.   Shipping from Anchorage costs about $.35 per pound for a heavy box going parcel post, say around $20 for a 50# box.  From the lower 48 the same box costs far, far more to send and takes longer, which is why going through Anchorage is generally cheaper than amazon.  But it’s tough to beat the convenience and selection on amazon if you don’t mind paying a bit more.

This is long enough, so let me just link to our old website (that cannot be updated) for information on shopping in Anchorage.  You can do it yourself, or use a middle-man company to shop and mail it to you, and this website explores these options in some detail.  This information is all 5 years old or something, but still useful.  The company I most highly recommend based on price, JB Bush, still exists but has changed their name to Alaska Bush Shoppers, not to be confused with Alaska Bush Service (same initials but different company) who I compare JB Bush to on the website.  Confused yet??  🙂  Hope this is helpful information.

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One Response

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  1. freedom kelley said, on February 26, 2012 at 3:10 pm

    ACFUALLY–A LOT of Amazon goods ship via free super saver shipping and it’s quite inexpensive!


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