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Empty shelves at Kwethluk Native Store put damper on Slaviq celebrations

Shelves are seen nearly bare at the Kwethluk Native Store on Jan. 9, 2024 following a delay in freight shipments.
James Nick
Shelves are seen nearly bare at the Kwethluk Native Store on Jan. 9, 2024 following a delay in freight shipments.

Amid recent preparations for Russian Orthodox Christmas, or Slaviq, residents of the Kuskokwim River community of Kwethluk found aisles of near-empty shelves at the village’s main grocery store.

“The shelves are bare. There’s nothing, only a few goodies, no Slaviq candy, nothing at all,” Elder Frank Ashepak said on Jan. 9. “We don’t have any gifts for the people and for the kids.”

Ashepak said on Jan. 9 that some people who would normally offer up their homes as part of the weeklong singing and feasting at the core of Slaviq had been forced to opt out.

The Kwethluk Native Store is the only grocery store serving the community of about 800 people and is run by the Alaska Native Industries Cooperative Association (ANICA), a Seattle-based cooperative that operates six stores across the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region.

“The last shipment we had was on Dec. 29, only enough to fill up my freezer, my produce, crackers, and some items like a case of sugar, or case of milk, or case of coffee,” said James Nick, who has managed the Kwethluk Native Store for the past 26 years.

Nick said that he started experiencing shipment delays in November, coinciding with a time when the Kuskokwim River was only partially frozen and too dangerous to travel with trucks. Freight could only arrive by air, and larger shipments by box truck or hovercraft from Bethel were on hold. As of Jan. 11, this was still the case.

“This year’s been worse than previous years because the ice is not getting thick enough and too much snow covering the ice,” Nick said.

But poor river conditions can’t explain the fact that Kwethluk hadn’t received groceries by air since before the new year.

Nick said that he routinely places orders for store goods once or twice a week through the grocery store cooperative. As the days passed and inventory dwindled following the Dec. 29 shipment, he said that he was in the dark and relying on ANICA for updates.

“They only tell me the record of how many pallets they bring up to which airline,” Nick said.

According to ANICA, there have been no issues on the cooperative’s end with shipments bound for Kwethluk that might explain the delays.

The goods that stock ANICA’s stores are sent through a long-standing federal Bypass Mail program, which is run through the United States Postal Service and subsidizes cargo shipments of consumer goods and groceries to rural Alaska communities like Kwethluk. Shipments are handed over to private carriers in shipping hubs like Anchorage and Fairbanks, bypassing postal facilities.

In the case of ANICA, shipments go directly from the cooperative’s Anchorage warehouse to one of a handful of licensed bypass carriers. Some, like Northern Air Cargo and Lynden Air Cargo, handle mail bound for Bethel.

“Customers are feeling it”

On Jan. 9, with Slaviq celebrations nearly wrapped up in Kwethluk and nearly all of the store’s inventory gone, Nick received word from ANICA that 10 pallets of his bypass freight had arrived in Bethel and that 16 more were sitting in Anchorage waiting to be shipped. But Nick said that even this won’t last long.

“Kwethluk is big. That 26 pallets, four or five days it’ll be all gone,” Nick said.

Nick said that it’s especially concerning that the store hasn’t been able to serve the large proportion of customers who rely on both benefits from the state’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Women, Infants, and Children Program (WIC).

“Every day they call asking if we got UHT milk or canned milk for their babies or cereal, and we don’t have it,” Nick said. “We’re feeling the pain here. Customers are feeling it.”

USPS did not immediately respond to requests for comment regarding bypass mail issues that may have affected shipments bound for the Kwethluk Native Store.

On Jan. 10, a spokesperson for Bering Marine Corporation, the contractor responsible for bypass mail shipments from Bethel to Kwethluk, said that the company was “keeping up with mail deliveries as they arrive in Bethel”. They also said that no bypass mail bound for Kwethluk had been awaiting delivery in their facilities during the approximately week and a half that the Kwethluk Native Store began facing a critical shortage of goods.

For now, it remains unclear exactly where in the supply chain things went awry. On Thursday Jan. 11, the 10 pallets that had been sitting in Bethel did make it to Kwethluk. Nick said that food will go fast, but that he is setting plans to ensure that the store’s shelves stay stocked for the foreseeable future.

Evan Erickson is a reporter at KYUK who has previously worked as a copy editor, audio engineer and freelance journalist.
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