Food insecurity in Alaska

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In this August 2014 file photo, Elder May Bernhardt picks fireweed blossoms off the stalks to make fireweed jelly at the Maniilaq Association elder care facility in Kotzebue. Food scarcity issues are more complex in rural Alaska, where traditional foods including wild fish, plants and game are a significant part of diets, says a new report on the subject from the Inuit Circumpolar Council Alaska. (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)
In this August 2014 file photo, Elder May Bernhardt picks fireweed blossoms off the stalks to make fireweed jelly at the Maniilaq Association elder care facility in Kotzebue. Food scarcity issues are more complex in rural Alaska, where traditional foods including wild fish, plants and game are a significant part of diets, says a new report on the subject from the Inuit Circumpolar Council Alaska. (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)
In the far north, where wild fish, game and plants are dietary staples and where store-bought foods are sometimes prohibitively expensive, food insecurity is a complex, but widespread problem for indigenous peoples.

Addressing that problem, says a new report from an Alaska indigenous organization, will require a complex and widespread approach.

The report, issued by the Inuit Circumpolar Council Alaska, identifies six interrelated dimensions of food security — availability, accessibility, decision-making power and management authority, culture, stability and health and wellness.

“It’s something different than just talking about purchasing power and calories and nutrition,” said Carolina Behe, indigenous knowledge and science adviser for ICC-Alaska.

Broader aspects of food security are sometimes neglected by policy makers, Behe said. For example, a young man in a village who harvests his first walrus and shares meat with the community “now becomes a provider,” she said. “That’s his identity.”

Recommendations

The report was more than three years in the making and resulted from a series of community meetings and workshops across four regions with related Alaska Native groups — the North Slope, the northwest Arctic, the Bering Strait and Yukon-Kuskokwim regions. Tribal councils representing people in 81 different villages participated, and the final product has 146 Alaska Native co-authors from the regions included.

It makes a series of recommendations to address each of the six dimensions of food security for Alaska Natives in those regions. Some are very specific and detailed, such as recommendations to document traditional recipes, food-preparation methods and medicinal plants. Some are broader, such as a call to raise the profile of traditional knowledge.

One overriding theme, Behe said, is the need for more local management authority and flexibility, especially in a time of rapid changes in climate and weather conditions.

“Things are changing so quickly that you have to make decisions quickly about what kind of food you’re going to get,” Behe said. “If you’re going to dry food, it can’t be raining.”

Climate change

Some participants pointed out the impacts of climate change on food access, she said. With sea ice becoming scarce, people who used to gather food within a few miles from home now have to travel longer distances to reach the ice edge, she said. That means more expense for fuel and more safety risks, she said.

The report, though it is specific to Alaska, will be forwarded to the eight-nation Arctic Council, Behe said. The Inuit Circumpolar Council, which has regional organizations in Canada and Chukotka as well as Alaska, is one of the Arctic Council’s permanent participants.

Rural Alaska is not the only region of the Arctic where residents struggle with food scarcity and its myriad effects.

The problem is particularly severe in the Arctic Canadian territory of Nunavut, where rates of food insecurity are more than four times the national Canadian average, according to the government agency Statistics Canada, and many preschoolers go hungry.

The problem plagues northern Quebec as well; astudy published last year in the Journal of Canadian Health found evidence that food scarcity had slowed the growth of Inuit children in Nunavik, a community in the northern region of that province.

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Addressing northern food insecurity, Blog by Heather Exner-Pirot

Norway:  The food crisis in the Far North, Barrents Observer

Sweden: Demand ups Sweden’s reindeer meat prices, Radio Sweden

United States: Traditional foods making their way onto elders’ plates in Northwest Alaska, Alaska Dispatch

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