More than six million Americans enrolled in food stamps in the first three months of the coronavirus pandemic, as people across the country lost their jobs and children transitioned to at-home learning.
The 17 percent expansion from February to May in the food stamps program — formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP — is the fastest growth in the program's history, according to the New York Times.
In Unalaska, local nonprofit organization Unalaskans Against Sexual Assault and Family Violence (USAFV), which serves as the community's unofficial food bank, provided more than 184 food boxes to locals between January and June. That's a 27 percent increase from the same period last year, according to USAFV Director M. Lynn Crane.
"We operate as the community's main food bank," Crane said. "Several of the churches also help folks out with food, and of course the senior lunch program provides lunches and other food to seniors too. But for most of the community, USAFV is the organization that is dealing with food insecurity."
Now, as more people on the island become food insecure amid the pandemic — meaning they lack consistent access to enough food — the Qawalangin Tribe is preparing to help address the growing need through a CARES Act grant through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
Aleutian Housing Authority — the tribally designated housing entity for the region — was awarded $392,000 in coronavirus relief funding to build a food bank facilitated by the tribe, according to Alysha Richardson, the Qawalangin Tribe's wellness coordinator.
"We're all living in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic, not sure of when it will start to get better, much less end," said Richardson. "And nationwide, statewide, and also locally, the need to access food is going up."
According to Richardson, this is a large project for the tribe, which is currently located in the old Unalaska Building Supply structure in the Valley. She said the building isn't outfitted to be a food bank. So, they will have to retrofit the warehouse, set up electricity and heat for multiple refrigerators and freezers, add shelving and another bathroom, and install multiple sinks to be able to harvest, prepare, and distribute traditional foods.
Richardson said the project will be "very complimentary" to the food service USAFV provides, but with some differences. The tribe's vision, she said, is to focus on having nutrient-dense foods, including fruits and vegetables, as well as fish, berries, and other plants harvested locally — which USAFV has largely been unable to provide in the past.
"That's all very important during the COVID-19 pandemic as well, because if people are experiencing food insecurity or nutrient insecurity, they're much more susceptible to being affected negatively by COVID-19," she said.
The tribe also has funding for a delivery vehicle in order to distribute food to elders or those who do not have access to a car, she added.
With the funding that the tribe has received from HUD, Richardson said they currently have money for eight shipments of perishable and nonperishable foods.
"The funds for these initial shipments will run out in June of 2021," she said. "But we are already seeking ways to supplement that food because we don't want this service to stop in June."
According to Richardson, the tribe is pursuing a partnership with SeaShare, a nonprofit founded in 1994 to help the seafood industry donate to hunger-relief efforts throughout the country.
She said USAFV previously pursued a partnership with the organization, but was unable to follow through because the local nonprofit doesn't have storage capacity for SeaShare's frozen seafood.
"In order to be a partner, you have to have space to house a large restaurant-style freezer," said Richardson. "Thankfully, the tribe is able to do this. And we'll be in partnership with SeaShare to make sure that community members will have access to these donations."
Currently, Richardson said they don't know how many meals per day the tribe's food bank will be able to provide to Unalaskans, because they haven't yet quantified the local need. But, she said, they only expect the demand for food to go up in the community as the pandemic progresses into the winter months, and she hopes to be able to provide enough food for every meal, if needed, or enough to supplement what individuals and families are able to procure on their own.
"Our intention is to serve anyone and everyone on the island that has food or nutrient needs, because we are all deeply affected by each other's health and wellbeing, especially during this pandemic," Richardson said. "Our priority is for elders and vulnerable elders — they will definitely be the first people that we reach out to to fulfill their needs — but this service will be for everyone on the island, tribal members and non-members."
Richardson said the pandemic is affecting people who may have never experienced food insecurity in the past, and that the tribe has heard from some of its members recently that their grocery bills have gone up by 25 percent.
"Is that going to get any better? Who knows?" she said. "There are so many unknowns. This pandemic has highlighted so many issues — food being a huge one, especially here. And I know that in other rural communities off the road system, there was panic buying and a lot of uncertainty about when they were going to have food. What is the backup plan? Is there a local cache of food somewhere? It can be really concerning. And food security is one of the things we really need to address as a community."
Richardson said the tribe has not yet started retrofitting its building, but hopes to start distributing food in November.
For those currently experiencing food insecurity, contact Unalaskans Against Sexual Assault and Family Violence Monday through Friday, between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. at 581-1500.