Preschool students living on Alaska's Aleutian and Pribilof Islands will learn about healthy eating in a new way this year.
Instead of looking at pictures of foods often unattainable in the region, such as starfruit, cantaloupe and squash, they will learn how to make the more culturally relevant sea lion meatballs, kelp chips and caribou cabbage, said Julia Sargent, assistant community health services administrator at the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association.
The recipes are folded into a new pre-kindergarten curriculum developed by the association and rooted in teaching children about subsistence.
"We wanted to bring it to the kids' level," Sargent, a co-author of the curriculum, said in an interview Thursday in Anchorage. "This is what they know."
Teachers at the region's four federally funded Head Start programs, from Sand Point to St. Paul, will use the new curriculum called "Qaqamiigux" for the first time this month, following a pilot program in the spring, Sargent said.
The Head Start programs for children ages 3 to 5 must have a nutrition lesson each month, she said. The new curriculum will replace lessons from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that centered on fruits and vegetables, like starfruit, that many local children had never seen or tasted before.
"We're excited because this is going to bring a lot of enthusiasm and knowledge of traditional culture to our sites," said Beverly Mierzejek, Head Start division coordinator at the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association. "This is who we are — I can't stress that enough."
To create the curriculum for the regional Head Start programs, the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association received a one-year $40,000 grant from the Notah Begay III Foundation, a nonprofit focused on reducing Native American childhood obesity and Type 2 diabetes.
Sargent said the curriculum's four authors hope the lessons will lower obesity rates in the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands. According to the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, adult obesity rates in the region exceed 40 percent.
The new curriculum highlights traditional foods' nutritional benefits, comparing them to processed foods that have crept into the remote communities, said Suanne Unger, a curriculum co-author and the wellness program coordinator at the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association.
Unger pointed to a page in the curriculum book Thursday that had a graphic about iron content. It showed that the amount of iron in 3 ounces of bearded seal meat is the equivalent to the amount of iron in 24 hot dogs or 68 chicken nuggets.
The marine mammal lesson also incorporates the Unangam Tunuu language and includes a relevant song, coloring pages and information on how to harvest sea lion.
"The revitalization of subsistence is teaching the kids how to actually go out and procure and harvest the subsistence foods, too," said Tracy Stewart, a doctoral student at the University of Alaska Anchorage and curriculum co-author.
The curriculum's authors said they hope the lessons extend beyond the classroom. The curriculum materials include letters that teachers can send home to parents that explain the current lesson and ask if they would like to come into the classroom to help share in the cultural activities — relaying traditions to the next generation.
"We have to pass this information onto our children," Mierzejek said. "It needs to be passed on."