New guidelines allow traditional Native foods onto more plates
When Alaska Native elders talk about Alaska's traditional foods they often say, "real foods feed our bodies and our spirits." Eating traditional foods like moose, fish and berries often is easy as long as seniors remain at home, but is more challenging if they participate in senior meal programs or move into urban areas, long-term care, nursing homes or hospital settings.
The National Resource Center for Alaska Native Elders (NRC) listened to Alaska Native elders and senior Alaskans express their desire to eat more traditional foods in meal service programs and began to work closely with the Alaska Dept. of Environmental Conservation Food Safety and Sanitation Division (Alaska DEC) to clarify the confusing federal, state and local regulations guiding donations of traditional foods to programs that serve or provide food.
Conversations with food service providers provided insight into the challenges associated with access to traditional foods. Many meal providers were intimidated by the complicated laws and regulations about food donations. They were hesitant to accept traditional food donations because they didn't want to violate food safety guidelines and even knowledgeable meal providers were overwhelmed by information from federal, state and local authorities.
As the NRC and the Alaska DEC spoke with more meal providers, the voices expressing a desire for clear information became stronger. Agencies wanted to be a part of the conversation in order to make it easy to accept traditional food donations in Alaska so seniors and others could eat their comfort foods, eat local foods and reduce strains on food service budgets.
The next step in the process of making traditional food donations easier for meal and food programs was to learn the specific questions people needed answered. The obvious questions, "What foods are allowed to be donated?" quickly progressed to complicated questions, such as "How do meal providers know donated foods are safe?" The Alaska DEC was invaluable in understanding the complexities of the food code and helping draft easily understood text.
After learning how to answer all of the questions from meal and food programs, three documents began to take shape. The first was a poster designed for the general public. It could be displayed where anyone could read it, such as a community center, food pantry, senior meal program, health center or other sites that accept donations. The poster clearly shows what Alaskan traditional foods are allowed or prohibited and how to donate those foods.
The second poster was designed for kitchen or meal preparation staff or volunteers at food service programs. It briefly shares information about food safety, preparation, processing, and storage. This poster could be hung in a facility kitchen, donation receiving area, or staff area.
Third, a toolkit was created that explains food donations and the regulations in greater detail. This eight-page document is available for anyone who wishes to learn more about safely donating, processing and serving traditional Alaskan foods.
The toolkit and posters are adorned with beautiful photos provided by Dr. Gary Ferguson, Senior Director of Community Health Services at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, who promotes traditional foods as an important aspect of wellness and health.
Copies of the posters were available at the Alaska Federation of Natives Convention during the health fair, where they were well-received and will be distributed statewide. The posters and toolkit will also be available in mid-November online on the NRC website at http://www.uaa.alaska.edu/elders/traditionalfoods or on the Alaska DEC website at http://dec.alaska.gov/eh/fss/food/traditional_foods.html.
Hopefully, these posters and toolkit will make it less intimidating for community members to donate hunted and gathered foods and can improve the quality of life for elders and seniors throughout the state. You can help by encouraging the food service programs in your community to use the posters and by donating traditional foods and encouraging family and friends to donate too. Everybody loves comfort food, especially when it is healthy moose, caribou, salmon, and berries! Sharing these foods with others makes us feel happier and benefits others in our communities. As Alaska Native elders remind us, "traditional foods feed our spirits too."
Nancy J Furlow, Ph.D., is an Older Persons Action Group board member and Director of the National Resource Center for Alaska Native Elders, University of Alaska Anchorage. Sarah Shimer, MPH, is a Research Associate with Institute for Circumpolar Health Studies and National Resource Center for Alaska Native Elders.