The Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association (APIA) is working to address food insecurity in the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands through a two-year grant awarded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"We will be working with tribes, as partners, and trying to better understand local food systems in the region and begin planning and designing a regional food system," said Suanne Unger, Wellness Lead at the regional nonprofit tribal organization's Anchorage office.
Unger — who's been working in the areas of traditional foods and food security for about 20 years — said the USDA Regional Food System Partnership Program grant was awarded in late 2020, and will run through September of 2022.
APIA is working to collaborate with 13 tribes across 10 communities in the Aleutian and Pribilof region who are interested in addressing food security under the new $380,000 grant — $250,000 of that comes directly from the USDA, and the rest comes from APIA and Alaska Village Initiatives.
The final outcome of the project will be local food security assessments which will ultimately help inform the need or community interest in things like local food banks, community greenhouses or even grocery stores with healthy and affordable options. But what exactly it will look like is yet to be determined.
"We are just starting to meet with some of the communities who feel they are ready," Unger said. "And we know there are a lot of priorities right now, especially with the COVID-19 pandemic. And so some communities are more ready than others."
The rollout has been slow, according to Unger, but they've been able to start assessing food needs in the community of Saint Paul, by putting 10 questions related to food security on the local government's annual community assessment survey.
She said she expects APIA will begin working with the Qawalangin Tribe and other stakeholders in Unalaska within the next few months.
Alysha Richardson, Emergency Response and Community Safety Coordinator with the tribe, said they're excited to hear about APIA receiving the USDA grant and the nonprofit's interest in partnering with them to assess food security on the island.
"Hunger and nutritional needs have been exacerbated in Unalaska as the global pandemic continues, and the Qawalangin Tribe has stepped up to assist in meeting these needs," Richardson said. "We are working to develop Unalaska's first official food bank, and as we move through that process, we continue to recognize the significant impact the results of APIA's Regional Food Systems Partnership grant could have on the people we will serve."
Richardson said they hope the results of their partnership will give them a better understanding of the community's comprehensive needs and allow them to build more robust partnerships with local organizations.
As part of APIA's new initiative, Unger said they will have to take a hard look at how far away the communities they'll be working with are from outside food sources, and address how the instability of both air and marine transport relates to bringing in food and other supplies.
"The Aleutian and Pribilof Island region is very geographically isolated, and a lot of food comes in from outside," she said.
Additionally, Unger said incorporating traditional foods will be a component of APIA's food security initiative, and will be part of discussions at the local and regional levels.
"There is some reliance on traditional foods — more significant amounts in some communities than in others," Unger said. "Healthy traditional foods as part of the diet is a huge component of food sovereignty and food security in the region."
The USDA awarded 23 grants in 15 states through its Regional Food System Partnership Program. According to their website, the grant program focuses on strengthening the "viability and resilience" of regional food security through collaboration and coordination.