Rising food costs and a national epidemic of obesity have naturopath Gary Ferguson and gourmet chef Rob Kinneen scrambling to help Alaskans realize that the store outside their door is a great source of eating economically for better health.
"What we are hoping to do is to bring fun energy to traditional foods in contemporary ways," said Ferguson, the director of wellness and prevention at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium in Anchorage.
"My whole mission is basically bringing awareness and accessibility to Alaska's food supply," said Kinneen, who has become known in his career as a chef in Alaska as an advocate of sourcing locally.
Ferguson and Kinneen recently completed a "webisode" on gathering, preparing and storing nutritious foods that can be gathered in Southeast Alaska, and plan to continue their venture in other regions of the state.
There are a lot of things tied into the project on how to forage, hunt, store and prepare these foods, said Ferguson, in an interview at the recent Global Foods Alaska 2011 in Soldotna, a conference and trade show for the food industry in Alaska.
The theme of their webisodes is "Traditional foods/Contemporary Chef."
Kinneen, also in attendance at the conference, meanwhile has premiered his new website, www.fresh49.com, which he says will intertwine his passion for local foods, his contemporary chef training, and lead him on a journey to connect with his Native identity while exploring the nutrient dense bounty Alaska has to offer.
Ferguson, who holds a doctorate in naturopathic medicine, notes a U.S. Department of Agriculture survey that notes about $2 billion is spent by Alaskans annually on food, of which 2-3 percent is sourced in Alaska. It's a bad trend, he said, being dependent on places outside of Alaska for food, one he would like to reverse, for the health of Alaskans as well as job opportunities.
Kinneen, for his part, wants to concentrate on affordable menus using foods that are regional and utilize ingredients from the average decently stocked pantry, he said.
In the Southeast Alaska webisode, for example, Kinneen demonstrated preparation of a meat course of venison skewered with zucchini and onion, marinated in spruce tips, garlic, oil and wild parsley, with some seal oil to help the marinade. It was served with skunk cabbage roots and fiddlehead ferns, with a sauce of spruce tip vinaigrette.
Now he's turning his attention to Southcentral Alaska, and recently spent an evening with area Native elders gathering chocolate lilies, lovage and edible flowers in Girdwood.
There's lots of good food out there that people walk over every day, including fireweed blossoms, he said. "With less than one million residents and prices going up, it would do us well to look at the resources right in our own back yard," he said.
Kinneen, a graduate of the Culinary School of American, is an Alaskan chef of Tlingit heritage, born in Petersburg and raised in Anchorage, who has worked at a number of fine restaurants in Alaska and other states. He was the guest chef at the Sitka Seafood Festival last August and then again this year in May.
Ferguson, an Aleut who grew up in Sand Point, is a graduate of the National College of Naturopathic Medicine. He has been working on diabetes prevention since 2001, starting with the Eastern Aleutian Tribes, in his first job out of college. His professional credentials include serving as a board member for Access Alaska and the Aleut Foundation.
Now he wants to engage the whole state in this wellness project.
With their webisode on Southeast Alaska expected to be ready for release by the end of June. Ferguson and Kinneen are already looking ahead to similar productions for Southcentral Alaska and the Yukon-Kuskokwim area.
Each of the webisodes will engage local elders, traditional foods, local tribes and the stories associated with these foods, Ferguson said.
"We want to work with the whole community," he said. "We also have conversations underway for a possible Interior project in the Ruby-Galena area. A lot of this is about funding. We want to create enough buzz so that corporations in these regions we go to want to be part of that."
Carrie Brown, director of the Health Alaska Native Foundation, which is affiliated with the Alaska Native Tribal Health consortium, has set up a cost center for donations that will go directly to the project, he said.
Meanwhile, Ferguson and Kinneen remain excited about the potential of helping fellow Alaskans learn to find more nutritious foods in the wild in the areas where they live.
"As the season goes, more and more plants come out, plants with nutritional and medicinal values," Ferguson said. They can be harvested for immediate use and a lot of them can also be blanched and frozen, he said.
This story is posted with permission from Alaska Newspapers Inc., which publishes six weekly community newspapers, a statewide shopper, a statewide magazine and slate of special publications that supplement its products year-round.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing