The Future of Alaska food

By Brooke Sheridan

There is a difference between being fed and being nourished — both fill the belly, but only one sustains the body. In many remote Alaska villages, getting healthy food is difficult, uncertain and expensive.

It’s not much of an overstatement to say villagers don’t always know where the next season’s meals will come from. Consider fishing: each year there is the possibility that the salmon fishery on the Yukon River might be closed. When that happens, villagers along the river catch fewer fish, which increases the need to bring in a moose for a fresh meat source. Weather and seasonal variations, however, have altered the behavior and distribution of moose. They no longer congregate reliably near the river, forcing hunters to travel further inland by four-wheeler or snow machine, which can be prohibitively expensive due to fuel costs.

plantThere are lean hunting seasons when villagers are often left with only one option: the local store. Fresh foods are hard to find in village stores, and what remains are usually highly processed boxed and canned goods with little nutrient value. The imminent threat is not starvation, but clinical malnutrition. The prevalence of food-related health problems such as type II diabetes, obesity and heart disease are at an unprecedented high in many villages.

“Villages are vulnerable right now,” says Craig Gerlach, professor of anthropology, and many villagers “are malnourished, especially where access to country foods is limited.”

Part of his solution: bring back the old-style kitchen garden, now familiar mostly to community elders, and turn it into a larger, village-shared, village-run garden. Sounds easy enough, but as any first-time gardener knows, the first few years establishing a garden are incredibly labor-intensive, and the process is not necessarily intuitive — especially when gardening has been effectively out of fashion for two or more generations.

Sustainability is a key goal in Gerlach’s work, a collaborative effort that includes the development of long-term, community gardens in many remote Alaska Native villages. Gerlach is a professor in UAF’s Center for Cross-Cultural Studies, and has faculty research appointments in the Engineering, Science and Technology Experiment Station and the Institute of Arctic Biology. He also works closely with colleagues in the School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences. The projects are integrated under the social vulnerability study of Alaska’s rural communities, the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy, and various village-supported farming and gardening initiatives.

carrots    pumpkins

From people whose food-procurement traditions hinge on hunting and fishing, the argument frequently arises that “we’re hunters, not farmers.” But Gerlach emphasizes the difference between agriculture as a way of life and gardening as a supplement to the traditional, meat-based diet. Villagers are witnessing the positive effects of maintaining community gardens, and are beginning to understand their power to augment lean hunting years on their own, without outside help. The term villagers use is not “sustainability,” but “self-reliance” — the power of individuals to contribute to the long-term health of their communities.

A major factor in determining the success of the gardens is, of course, Alaska’s climate. “The growing season is short,” says Gerlach, “but incredibly productive.” The further north, the shorter the season, but high tunnels and greenhouses can artificially extend the growing season.