Bill encourages more use of traditional foods

Editor’s note: This press statement from Sen. Mark Begich’s office was received July 25.

To encourage access and consumption of healthy traditional foods, U.S. Senator Mark Begich has introduced The Traditional Foods Nourishment Act of 2013.

“Many Alaska Native traditional foods are proven to increase physical, emotional and spiritual wellness,” said Sen. Begich.  “Traditional foods such as wild salmon, migratory birds, moose and berries are fresher, less processed and retain more nutrients. All of which benefit Alaska Natives who may struggle with diet-related problems like heart disease and diabetes. It makes no sense for the federal government to ban food service programs from offering these options. If passed, my bill would allow for food service programs in schools, hospitals and elder care facilities to serve traditional foods. It’s a simple solution to a problem that is well worth fixing.”

A recent National Institute of Health study indicates an increase in the consumption of traditional foods results in positive health effects among Alaska Native people. The study finds that traditional foods from home can stand as a source of comfort when undergoing treatment or recovery.

Expanding food options in schools also can promote more extensive cultural education. Food plays an important part in a community’s culture and lifestyle. A fresh, diverse student menu encourages further investigation and appreciation for local food options.

In addition to all of the positive health and cultural benefits, this bill could lower expenses for food service operations. Allowing local subsistence users to make food donations would result in less dependence on imported food, with the savings used for other necessary expenses.

“In additional to the health benefits, increasing demand of local produce results in greater economic stimulation, which further develops local communities,” said Sen. Begich. “This is a win-win of better health and stronger local economies for rural Alaska.”

Expected results of the legislation include:

Stronger communities. Allowing public facilities to serve local foods donated by family, friends, and community members encourages community involvement.

More donation opportunities for sport hunters. Often sport hunters do not hunt for meat, and by accordance with Alaska regulation, are required to harvest all edible meat from most large game. Instead of disposing of this meat, this program provides a direct opportunity to donate local game to public facilities, where it would feed residents and students in their traditional styles.

Adherence to current health and safety standards. As drafted, this bill grants the Secretary of Agriculture authority to permit that traditional foods are allowable for donation, preparation and consumption in public facilities primarily serving Alaska Natives - if certain specific food safety requirements are met.

Increase access and reduce red tape. Leaders in the Alaska Native community have attempted to negotiate with the U.S. Department of Agriculture for many years to allow for traditional foods to be incorporated to their food service programs. For instance, NMS Dining Services has been working closely with Alaska Native Medical Center (ANMC) in a joint effort to find ways to incorporate Alaska Native foods into patient menu options. However, due to current federal regulations, the food options they have attempted to provide, at the request of customer-owners, has been barred.

Changing federal law to allow access to familiar traditional foods would have positive impacts not only for Alaska Natives, but for tribes across the country.