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New effort to bring Native foods to plates across Alaska

Suzanna Caldwell
“The Traditional Foods Nourishment Act of 2013” would make it easier to serve Alaska Native foods in facilities like hospitals and schools. Loren Holmes photo

For years, leaders in the Alaska Native community have tried to negotiate with the U.S. Department of Agriculture for permission to serve traditional foods to those who need them most. Now a bill from U.S. Sen. Mark Begich aims to eliminate the red tape involved with serving traditional foods in programs in Alaska and across the nation.

“The Traditional Foods Nourishment Act of 2013” would make it easier to serve Alaska Native foods in facilities like hospitals, schools, childcare and eldercare facilities. While some Native foods are already served in parts of Alaska -- several school districts have popular fish-to-school programs -- it’s been a struggle to incorporate more traditional foods in programs.

In some instances, particularly in the healthcare sector, serving traditional foods is more than just a taste issue -- it's a healing issue. “It makes so much sense it hurts,” said Dr. Ted Mala, former commissioner for the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services and director of traditional healing at the Alaska Native Medical Center.

“Native elders have told us, 'We need our own food,'” he said. “For compassion alone, they should be doing this.”

Traditional foods, untraditional challenges

Traditional foods are so common in Alaska it almost seems unfathomable there would be challenges in serving them.

Salmon, halibut, moose and crab are common at dinner tables across the state in both urban and rural areas. Fish-to-school programs are gaining traction in fishing communities from Dillingham to Sitka. Barley and locally grown vegetables are showing up on school lunch menus, thanks to a successful state farm-to-schools program. In Tok, students can even find bison on the menu.

Aside from the economic benefits of serving local food, studies show it’s healthier, too. Traditional foods can help in the healing process as well.

Jeannette Lawson, general manager for dietary food service at the Alaska Native Medical Center, said familiar foods can be huge comfort for people in the uncomfortable setting of a hospital far from home. Instead of craving chicken soup when sick, some crave caribou stew.

“If you're raised on it, it can be very healing,” she said.

Lawson said the hospital, which provides comprehensive health care to Alaska Native and American Indians in Alaska, already serves a variety of traditional foods. Cod, smoked salmon, Pilot Bread and fry bread all make appearances on the plates of patients.

It's a good start, but Lawson said there's still plenty more the hospital wishes it could serve. The hang-up? All food served must go through a USDA processing facility.

Begich’s bill, which was introduced last month, would grant the Secretary of Agriculture the authority to approve traditional foods that are allowable for donation, preparation and consumption in public facilities, as long as certain safety requirements are met.

Melissa Chulpach, dietitian for the Native Medical Center, said the two most requested items from patients are muktuk (generally bowhead whale skin with carefully trimmed portions of blubber) and seal oil. Those would still be off the menu if the bill went through because the processing (muktuk is served raw, seal oil is fermented) cannot be completely monitored. Since the hospital deals with immune-compromised individuals, it's not something that could safely be served.

State law, while fairly open to traditional foods, does have some limitations. For example, walrus, bear and fox can’t be served in public facilities due to concerns over trichinosis. Fermented foods -- think “stinkheads,” fermented fish heads or seal flipper -- would also be off the menu.

But things that could be served include moose, caribou, beaver or other game. Currently, wild game can be donated (it can’t be sold under state law), but Lawson said processors are often hesitant to deal with the meat for fear of USDA sanctions.

“This bill will help clarify and crystalize that this is an acceptable process,” Lawson said.

Limited availability

There are still plenty of other challenges to serving traditional foods across the state.

While serving wild game might be easy to do in small school or childcare programs, the larger the program the bigger the challenge, said Jo Dawson, child nutrition administrator for the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development.

“If there was commercial availability, more schools would do it,” she said. “But the issue is finding it.”

At the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp. in Bethel, chief executive Gene Petula said getting enough of certain traditional foods, like berries, could be a challenge, especially when trying to serve a large group of people.

The corporation, which runs the hospital in the rural Western Alaska hub town, already serves fish, thanks to easy access from a local food processor. Occassionally, reindeer is also on the menu. The menu is "limited to what we can get commercially,” he said.

He did note that a regional inhalant treatment center has found success in having its patient participate in subsistence hunting as part of the healing process. They're allowed to process the game onsite into jerky and summer sausage, Petula said.

Local seafood processors have donated 1,000 pounds of coho salmon each year to schools in Sitka, including the state-run Mt. Edgecumbe High School that boards many students from Alaska villages, said Andrew Thoms, executive director of the Sitka Conservation Society. The school program even includes lesson plans on the importance of fish in the coastal community and a “We Love Our Fishermen” Valentine's Day salmon lunch.

But Thoms noted that the cost of the commodity -- the fish -- is high. Even with incentives from the state, long-term it may not be financially sustainable for the local processors to keep up with donations.

Thoms isn't sure what the answer is, but having lawmakers like Begich take on the food issue and chip away at road blocks is a start.

Danny Consenstein, state executive director of the Alaska Farm Service Agency, agrees with that sentiment. While Begich's bill might make only small changes to food policy, it's part of a growing conversation about where Alaskans, and Americans, get their food. Consenstein, who is also a member of the Alaska Food Policy Council, said that in 1955, about half of Alaska's food came from outside the state. Now that number is up to 95 percent.

“Alaskans like to think of themselves as reliant, but I think a lot would stare at that number and think we're not that self-reliant,” he said.

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com