Four Unique Programs Combine Innovation with Tradition
Nowhere else in the United States is there such a strong relationship with wild food gathered from the land and sea. Lessons are taught while harvesting berries and plants, and traditions are passed down from generation to generation through hunting whales, making seal oil, and searching for caribou. Eleven distinct Alaska Native cultures are spread across more than 200 urban and rural communities, each with different animals, fish, and plants that are special to their region.
In a rapidly globalizing society, knowing where our food comes from is one of the most powerful connections we have to our land and water, our families, and to understanding who we are.
Food is culture; food is home; food is health; food is hope; food is a past; and food is a future. When we talk about Alaska’s local food movement, we aren’t just talking about farmers' markets and grass-fed beef. Local food here is more than just a diet or a trend – it’s a way of life. Alaska Native people have been eating “from tundra to table” and “ocean to plate” for thousands of years. And they continue to lead the way, especially in connecting elders and youth to local foods through these four innovative programs.
Sand Point elder Nora Newman puts it best: "When the tide is low, the table is set."
A COMMUNITY GARDEN PROVIDES FOR YOUNG AND OLD
Along the western shore of Cook Inlet lies the Native Village of Tyonek. Here, the community garden is also a classroom. The village is off the road system, and about a 25-minute flight from Anchorage. Around 200 people live in Tyonek and there is no grocery store. Food is flown in by small airplane or hunted, caught, grown, or foraged locally. Soda and junk food are popular requests by kids. And because processed and nonperishable foods are cheaper and easier to fly in, fresh produce is not easily accessible to residents. When a bag of salad mix or head of broccoli does make its way over, it is often wilted or past its prime.
Now, through its community garden, Tyonek has become a champion of local food.
The garden, which at 1.5 acres might be more accurately called a farm, is a community project intended to enhance food security and provide organic vegetables for the Dena'ina Athabascan people who live there. Five seasons in, the garden has three high tunnels, solar-powered irrigation and ventilation systems, 15 outdoor raised beds—and statewide fame gained from last season’s watermelons and corn on the cob.
Last summer, the garden grew over 1,400 pounds of produce, and students harvested over 700 pounds of potatoes. This season, they held their second annual Tyonek Grown Workshop, a hands-on training for other rural communities that are interested in setting up their own gardens.
October is National Farm to School month. Along with thousands of students across the country who are learning from school gardens, this fall the children of Tyonek will once again harvest potatoes and carrots from their garden. Students have been engaged in every step of the farming process. This includes planting and caring for the seeds in the classroom, transplanting them into the garden in spring, weeding, harvesting and helping distribute to community elders. This summer, a local resident and two local high school interns were employed to help the Tyonek Tribal Conservation District manage the garden. Vegetables harvested from the garden are always shared first with elders and then distributed to the village at a weekly farmers market.
NOURISHING ELDERS IN THE NATIVE VILLAGE OF CHICKALOON
I first met Angie Wade when I was sixteen years old. At the time I had never met anyone like her. She has held many titles: Daughter. Mother. Sister. Cultural Ambassador. Archeologist. Peace Officer. Like a feather that dances in the wind, she moves through life exploring her identity and role in her village in as many different ways as she can. Daughter of Chickaloon elder Katie Wade, Angie was born to be a culture bearer for her tribe. Her sister Lisa is equally a nurturer and a firecracker – leading with love and also with a fierceness that seems unstoppable.
Today, I’m their guest at Chickaloon’s Elder Lunch. A hum of excited chatter greets me as I enter. Folding tables fill the room and seat both Native and non-Native elders from Sutton and the surrounding communities. Every Thursday they are picked up and driven here for the event. Many look forward to it all week, as it’s also their only time to socialize. Fresh salmon caught at culture camp the week before is served with a kale-carrot salad. Leftovers are boxed up and delivered to elders’ homes that couldn’t make it. “To sit down together without an agenda and just be together over food – that was a real need for us,” Angie says. “Our identities depend on salmon. You can’t create culture from a bologna sandwich.”
BRINGING TRADITIONAL COOKING AND WILD FOODS TO ASSISTED LIVING
The Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium (ANTHC) initiative called the “Store Outside Your Door," is a web series that encourages foraging, farming, hunting, fishing, and preserving local food resources. ANTHC’s Elder Outreach initiative partners with assisted living homes across Alaska to encourage and teach caretakers how to cook with traditional foods. “Alaska has the fastest growing Elder population in the country,” said Gary Ferguson, an Aleut and the Senior Director of Community Health Services for the ANTHC . “Elders are viewed as the local experts in our communities and a key part of any community's success and wellness. A culture disconnected from their Elders is going to be sick.”
ANTHC has a cookbook developed specifically for Elders at nursing homes who want to learn how to serve traditional foods. “Grandma’s Recipes”, includes favorites such as salmon head soup and herring egg salad, which are rich in protein.
Ferguson started making the connection between food and health when he was a child growing up, harvesting beach greens and eating seal. His work with traditional plants as food and medicine is connected to his own roots and self-discovery. "It is my own journey of Store Outside my Door,” he says. He recently helped deliver herring eggs to Elders. “The taste, the smell...it’s healthy not just from a nutritional perspective, but also from a spiritual perspective.”.
A TASTE OF HOME FOR PATIENTS AT THE ALASKA NATIVE MEDICAL CENTER
In a hospital bed, a taste of home can be just what the doctor ordered. If you have ever spent time in the hospital, you might all too well remember how it can feel so far from the comforts of home. Now imagine not speaking the language, and being hundreds of miles away from family. You’re in pain. You’re lonely. Food could be the one familiar thing in this situation, but that too is foreign.
At the Alaska Native Medical Center NANA Management Services (NMS) Executive Chef Amy Foote makes a salmon, cabbage, and rice filling for piroks, or salmon hand pies. Earlier this spring she bought 200 pounds of fiddlehead ferns to add to the hospital menu, and puts them on pizza as toppings. Foote prepares homemade meals for the 167 patients who stay at the hospital.
Under state law, wild game cannot be sold, but it can be donated to schools, hospitals and assisted living homes. In the past year, ANTHC has accepted donations of wild game such as seal, moose, caribou, fish and berries to serve to ANMC patients. 100% of the salmon served at ANMC is wild Alaska salmon. Other traditional foods that are incorporated into meals, thanks to donors, are spruce tips, beach greens, berries, hooligan, and herring eggs. Foote says, “This is part of the movement to give back to Elders. You show respect to Elders by feeding them. You should look at an Elder’s freezer and find that it is always full.”
In February, a harbor seal was donated, which according to Foote was “landmark.” She decided to make a seal stew with it and helped deliver it to the patients. Foote relates the joy patients have with being served their traditional foods, even if it’s just a small cup of caribou bone broth, or some salmon eggs. “It’s bringing home to them,” Foote says with pride and satisfaction. “It’s an honor to have this job.”