Fighting Hunger on the Alaskan Frontier

A man bringing food to rural Alaska.
October 22, 2015
by Cara Durr

There is a rumor going around the Feeding America network that we at Food Bank of Alaska have our own plane. To set the record straight, we don’t, but we could certainly use one. Food Bank of Alaska serves the entire state, an area that covers over half a million square miles and is more than twice the size of Texas. Many communities are not accessible by road, and much of the food we distribute is indeed distributed through air cargo planes landing on gravel airstrips. The wide swaths of wilderness that make Alaska “the last frontier” also make distributing food – particularly to our rural communities – challenging.

Many people say that everything outside of Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city, is rural, but rural is a complex concept in Alaska. When most people think of “rural,” they imagine long, empty roads punctuated by the occasional house or small community. We have many areas like this in Alaska.  But we also have an entirely different type of rural communities -- remote villages and towns we call the “Bush,” most of which are accessible only by plane.

Rural Alaska has an unparalleled beauty, and many families have a millennia-long connection with their community. But living in rural Alaska can be tough, particularly for low-income families, as the cost of living is extremely high. A trip to a rural grocery store can be sobering: $10 for a gallon of milk, $6 for a loaf of bread, or $5 for a tomato way past its prime. I’ve seen half of a watermelon priced at $25. Many people in these communities participate in subsistence hunting, fishing and gathering to help put food on the table, but harvests are not always consistent. And even these activities cost money; often a boat or four-wheeler is needed to hunt, and gas can cost up to $10/gallon. Rural Alaskans commonly spend 40% of their annual income on energy, so it is no surprise that 74% of our rural clients report having to choose between paying for food and paying for utilities. On top of the high cost of living, in many rural communities there are just a handful of jobs to go around. For example, last year the Kusilvak (formerly Wade Hampton) Census Area had the highest percentage of unemployed people of any county or census area in the United States.

High-priced juice in rural AK

Extremely high-priced juice in rural Alaska.

All of these factors put a strain on families and their budgets. According to Map the Meal Gap, the highest instances of food insecurity in Alaska are found in rural areas. In the Kusilvak Census Area roughly a quarter of people are food insecure, and a whopping 37% of kids struggle with food insecurity. While there are more people struggling with hunger in these areas, there are often fewer community resources available to help them. There are not likely donation agreements with tiny local grocery stores, and it is difficult to ask the community to donate food when a can of fruit costs $5. 

Food Bank of Alaska recognizes that there are unique challenges to serving our rural communities. But sometimes unique challenges just need unique solutions. We will continue to send food out to these communities, through the federal Summer Food Service Program (SFSP), The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) and other programs, because these are much-needed resources. But we will also continue to make sure these programs work in the unique contexts of rural Alaska, and try to address issues through our advocacy and policy work. We will keep supporting projects and initiatives that increase access to locally harvested and locally grown food. Most importantly, Food Bank of Alaska will continue to look for new and innovative ways to address the issue of hunger in our state.

*Cara Durr is the senior manager of public engagement at the Food Bank of Alaska.

Tags: Fighting Hunger in Action , Food Bank Network , Alaska , Food Bank of Alaska, Inc.

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