Hungry Alaska

Courtesy Feeding America

What is old in Alaska is also new if the latest report from Feeding America is to be believed.

The 40-year-old, anti-hunger group that supports food banks in cities across the nation says that more than 95,000 Alaskans lack secure access to daily food supplies adequate to support “an active, healthy life for all household members.”

The greatest percentage of them, according to Feeding America, are in the rural areas of the state where hunger was a historic and prehistoric norm.

Twenty-two percent of the 5,600 people living in the Yukon-Koyukuk Census Area lack food security, according to the organization’s website.

Sprawling west across nearly 150,000 square miles of the state from the foothills of the Brooks Range along the Canadian border to the Kaltag Portage linking Interior Alaska to the Bering Sea, the Yukon-Koyukuk – so named for two of it’s biggest rivers – is the largest and least populated county or county-equivalent in the country.

It is an area where it has always been tough for people to survive. The 1880 U.S. Census reported only a few thousand residents, nearly all of them Alaska Natives.

Hazards of living off the land

Noting their dependence on the annual return of salmon to the rivers and the fluctuating abundances of caribou and moose on the surrounding lands, Ivan Petroff, the special agent for the census in early Alaska, observed that “the (subsistence food) supply does not seem to be equal to the demands of the native population. There is an annually recurring period of famine during the later months of winter and spring, and nearly all the money received from the traders is expended for flour, tea and sugar, the shipment of these articles to the Yukon region increasing in quantity every year.”

The recent arrival of firearms, he added, had made the situation temporarily better only to make it worse.

“In the past the staple food of winter was the meat of the reindeer (caribou), which animal was then abundant throughout the whole Yukon section, but the first introduction of breech-loading arms among these Native tribes caused an indiscriminate slaughter and the almost total disappearance of the animal from the immediate vicinity of the river.”

A cash economy, which allows people to buy easily stored commodities like flour and sugar with which to bake bread, was already beginning to develop, but it didn’t amount to much.

“The total value of furs shipped from this vast region to the American and European markets doest nor probably exceed $75,000 per annum (about $2 million in 2020 dollars),” Petroff wrote, “and the profits of this traffic are divided by two incorporated California companies with 15 or 20 trading stations along the (Yukon) river. The fiercest competition has caused high prices of furs, and it frequently occurs that one or the other of the firms carries on its operations for a season at a loss.

“No mineral deposits in paying quantities have yet been discovered as far as the Yukon flows within our (U.S.) boundaries. Prospectors have been at work many years along its upper course, but only on the Tennanah have traces of gold been found in quantity sufficient to pay a laborer’s wages during the brief summer season.”

The Tennanah is what is today known as the Tanana. Prospectors Arthur Harper and Alfred Mayo in 1878 reported discovering gold along that river 250 to 300 miles upstream of what is today Fairbanks, according to a state history, “but their discoveries went unheard.”

The upside of jobs

Gold wouldn’t be found in the Yukon-Koyukun country until John Beaton and partner W.A. “Bill” Dikeman stumbled on a monster find at Otter Creek that “resulted in the Iditarod gold rush (1908-1910), called Alaska’s last major gold rush,” according to “Iditarod was located on a twisting tributary of the Innoko River, and it became a booming mining camp.”

For a few brief years after, the region would know its first and last period of prosperity.  The now all-but-forgotten “Inland Empire” became the fastest growing place in the Alaska territory.

“Spreading from Ruby on the Yukon River south along the Kuskokwim Mountains into the drainages of the Innoko and upper Kuskokwim Rivers,” a Bureau of Land Management history records, “the rush to Iditarod and Ruby between 1910 and 1912 set 10,000 stampeders in motion, while each community reached peak populations of 3,000. Within two decades, $30 million ($391 million in 2020 dollars) worth of gold was dug from these goldfields.”

Today Iditarod is a ghost town best known as a checkpoint used by the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Ruby, a community once home to 3,000 and known as “The Hub of Alaska,” is down to 151 people. And the land along the 170 miles of the Iditarod Trail between Takotna, another old mining town where 49 people are hanging on, and Ruby presents a vast and deserted landscape that has gone fully back to nature.

Only along the rivers to the north and south do people remain, and the Feeding America report would indicate their survival is at times tenuous. The website estimates about $765,000 per year is needed to ensure those in the Yukon-Koyukuk district are properly fed at an average meal cost of $3.80.

Another $2.6 million is needed to feed residents of the Bethel Census Area along the Kuskokwim to the south of the old Inland Empire. The study reports 3,810 people there – or about 21.1 percent of the borough population – lack food security.

It is much the same in the other rural areas of the state where people depend significantly on what Alaskans call “subsistence,” ie. hunting and fishing, to feed themselves.

Nearly all of the state’s rural areas have rates of food insecurity near or above 20 percent. The situation is better in urban and semi-urban areas.

Urban improvement

The rate for both Anchorage – Alaska’s largest city – and Fairbanks – the second largest – is 11.5 percent. The Juneau Borough, home to the seat of state government, comes in at 10.4 percent.

The Matanuska-Susitna Borough, until recently the fastest-growing part of the state, is at 12.6 percent. The urban areas help bring the statewide rate down to 12.9 percent.

Of these 95,190 people, the Feeding America report says about half – 47 percent – are helped out by the U.S. Department of Agricultural’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or what used to be known simply as “food stamps.”

The rest make do as best they can.

The numbers indicate about one in every 16 Alaskans is getting federal food assistance while about one in every eight needs such help. The report puts the costs of providing aid for all those in need at $58 million.

On a national level, Alaska scores worse than the national average rate for food insecurity – 11.5 percent – but does better than some southern states. Rural areas in most states appear to be struggling although North Dakota, a state seriously lacking in urban areas, can boast that only 6.8 percent of its citizens struggle with food insecurity.

The rate is 9.5 percent in Seattle, but jumps to an average above 15 percent in rural, northeast Washington state. There appears a direct correlation between the availability of good-paying jobs and food security.

Ninety-two-point-eight percent of the residents of Santa Clara, Ca. are food secure, according to the report. The county is famously home to what is called “Silicone Valley.” 

Ninety-six-point-two percent of the residents of Loudon County, Va., are reported to be food secure. The county is home to the headquarters of Verizon Business, Telos Corporation and a variety of other inter-related technology companies. It is reported to house more than 60 supersize data centers estimated to carry 70 percent of global web traffic.

In areas less economically blessed, Feeding America says individuals can help fight hunger with contributions to their local food banks.

The Anchorage-based Foodbank of Alaska says the lack of food security is an issue haunting children in Alaska where one in five cannot count on their next meal. 

Food Bank of Alaska takes donations of both cash and food and notes that it “welcomes gifts of moose, caribou, deer and sheep meat, as well as salmon and halibut.”

The Christmas season might be a good time for Alaska dipnetters who got carried away with their harvest of salmon over the summer to assess the number of vacuum-backed filets in the freezer, calculate how many are likely to be eaten between now and next season, and make a donation to the food bank of the surplus.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misidentified the Bethel Census Area as an Alaska borough.















19 replies »

  1. Craig: About a hundred years ago there was a village in Alaska named Hungry. And it looked it.
    Some one out there decided to change the name to Lime Village. It’s still a hungry part of Bush Alaska.

  2. Well if guys like Bill Walker would have put the Billion dollar$ wasted on the gasline into agricultural projects across the state we would have all been in a much better position going into 2021.
    The PF is at an all time high of $70 Billion but the top stocks are all in China yet people think Wallstreet is gonna “de-list” China stocks?
    If even 10 percent of that fund was invested in sustainable AG projects across the state we can increase the quality of life for hundreds of thousands of Alaskans which would also raise our GDP.
    Ballot measure two has just passed and the GOP is slowly loosing their stranglehold on AK, now we need to support a new generation of candidates that can protect the traditions we all value while advancing the progress we need to allow us to transition into the economy of the future.

    • S.S,its doable,just a matter of economics.
      When u can ship milk from SEattle cheaper than producing localy in the valley.
      Which will the budget strapped buy?
      A few weeks ago i barely caught the end of radio program,was more or less along the same lines.
      I believe she was from the UA farm coop ext.,.
      She made the point that the carrot capital of US,
      Is bakersfield CA.And they tast like sh+t,compared to AK.
      Probably a high vol/low margin product (to compete),but a market ripe with potential to pick off.
      I certainly dont have a feel for it,but i suspect theres alot of reefer bans with little to no backhaul heading for westcoast points of origin

      • Dave,
        I would not re-do the Matanuska diary disaster, but if you look at the new indoor growing environments for veggies you can see where Alaska has a lot of room to grow.
        Take the pot industry for instance, all grown indoors throughout the state with high yields…a plant that is very similar to tomatoes.
        The western villages would be a great place for indoor gardens.
        A 40 foot connex with insulation, a heat source, ventilation and sophisticated lighting could produce leafy greens, tomatoes and other salad staples right onsite.
        Salad Greens
        Tomatoes, especially cherry types
        All can easily be grown indoors and on smaller community levels.
        The state should be offering grants to impoverished communities throughout the state and working with the UAF extension to improve our food security instead of wasting all their resources on pet projects that never come to fruition.

      • They are called modular or vertical farms and there are a few of them around the state. I think there are a couple out in Bethel and maybe Nome, Anchorage has some, Soldotna has one, seems like a couple other communities that I can’t think of right now. They aren’t cheap, the labor cost isn’t cheap, and thus the produce they produce isn’t cheap. There was a piece on one of the news channels awhile back and I think they were using people rehabilitating from drug addiction to teach them how to work and grow vegetables at the same time, I couldn’t find a link to the story or I would share it.

        In my local store we get Alaska grown tomatoes during the summer, potatoes and carrots most of the year, and occasionally some Alaska grown meat. The carrots are definitely better than any other carrots, I like the taters but taters are taters, the tomatoes taste better and are always fresher plus they don’t have mold so that’s good! I do my own farming in the summertime so maybe I’m missing out on other Alaska grown veggies at the store, but not at home.

      • One of the fallouts from discussion into small modular reactors (SMRs) for Bush Alaska a decade or two ago was the realization that on the one hand, they were both too expensive and on the other, too big. There was unofficial interest from at least 4 communities at the time – Galena, Nome, Barrow & Unalakleet.

        Reactors are basically heat engines, good choices in the Cold Country. Generally they are sized to output 2 parts heat for 1 part electricity. And you gotta do something with that heat. If you have a heat engine, what would you do with the excess? I’d heat greenhouses, onshore RAS systems, and pipe the heat to local buildings like we used to do in the old days on Elmendorf, though the later is highly inefficient.

        Over the last decade, particularly during the Trump administration, we’ve made great strides in SMRs, with at least 2 Generation IV (GenIV) designs licensed. GenIV is important in that they don’t melt down, are completely safe, and burn nuclear waste from older designs. Their operation is relatively stupid and do not require a standing army of technicians.

        If (and when) they start coming to AK, expect them to start showing up in the larger Bush communities, which will serve outlying communities with food, liquid fuel, maybe even electricity, though transmission is expensive at $1 million/mile. Whatever happens will be much less expensive than trucking fuel and food in from FAI, flying it in, or bringing it in on a barge from Seattle.

        The future is coming for the Bush. It’ll give Lisa something to do. Cheers –

      • Ag,
        Of course you could probably come up with a small laundry list of reasons for the state being held back from some sort of economic pathway out of the doldrums.But to me,it boils down to two things, price of energy and trans infrastructure.
        And small self contained nuke(if you could get past the stigma) could be a game changer.I remember about the Galena proposal,i heard it first from somebody (previously long time resident of Galena) who was running for MEA board at the time.
        The way I remember it was they were Toshiba units about the size of a 55 gallon barrel.Got decent amount of press, and then deflated like a tire with a slow leak.
        Sorta like I expect the Alberta/AKRR extension to do.What a permitting/legal landhold status nightmare that would be.Would make UCI fishery seem like a dream.

      • DMC –

        You probably heard of it from Marvin Yoder who was city manager at Galena at the time. He later ran for the MEA Board. He’s still around.

        The Toshiba 4S was abandoned in 2011 and never licensed. Westinghouse – Toshiba also went bankrupt so they are no longer players.

        NuScale was licensed to build a pair of reactors mid-late decade. Its still pretty large at 60MW. GE-Hitachi also has one in process. They’re coming.

        Problem with these has been twofold – cost and regulatory overhead. Over the years, the NRC got themselves into the business of drawing out licensing and approvals for decades, which in turn jacks up costs to unaffordable levels (not unlike what the feds have done with Pebble permitting). Trump and Perry changed that mindset, so things are in progress. We will see how far they get this time around. The other problem is that with something that is expected to operate for a decade, you really ought to have one in operation for a decade or more, which makes the life cycle exceedingly long. Trump / Perry pushed that noodle also. Cheers –

  3. The New Wave of Fishless Fish Is Here
    Nov 24, 2020

    Food scientists and marketers are creating healthy, plant-based, imitation tuna, crab, and shrimp that look and taste like the real thing. Better yet, switching to faux seafood will help curb our reliance on an international fishing industry that has become an environmental and human-rights disaster.

    • The Good Catch stuff is relatively high in carbs – 5 – 7 gm/serving depending on which product you get. Normal fish and shellfish are around 0.

      Plant-based hamburger patties use beans and are relatively high in carbs. Normal beef is around 0. Neat idea, but not compatible with all diets. Cheers –

    • yeah, i saw that story. the groundswell of stories about the international fishing industry being “an environmental and human-rights disaster” certainly doesn’t help in the marketing of Alaska salmon.

      most especially when a lot of it is now shipped to China for processing where there are all sorts of human rights problems.

      • Whatever you do, do not watch the Netflix series called Rotten and specifically the episode called “Garlic Breath”. My god, I am a garlic lover and after watching what they do in China just with garlic so they can sell it to us is beyond sickening. I can only imagine what they do to the rest of the food products they supply to us.

        Short story long you do not want to eat any food that has anything to do with China.

  4. I say the hungry can all go to Portland or Seattle. A socialists eutopia. The cup overfloith. Free beans and cheese for everybody. Just take what you want. It is all free and owed to you. Just watch the feces.. As for Fairfax/Loudon County VA, home of MS-13, well, they aren’t sharing. So, forget those Beltway Dem bums. Gluttonous Fryer Tuck merely throws his leg bones at the starving masses there. And a good Christmas to all…

    • Seattle a “socialist utopia’? What have you been smoking?
      King County has the highest property tax mil rate in WA. Sales tax averages 10.5 %. throughout KC.

      What do you call the AK 2020 $992 PFD? Corporate capitalism?
      How about Roy Cohn, one of your mentors?

    • The demand on food banks as risen 50%, since last February. The company I am affiliated with partners with and supports 17 non-profit food banks within King & Snohomish counties.
      Hunger is real, US residents are going to bed hungry, and Trump sits in the WH, whining and crying! What a Loser! Can you say LOOOOOSER!

      • Jame’s, if you think Americans are hungry with Trumps lowest black, female, and Hispanic unemployment #’s, wait until Dementia Joe gets in. Last time he was in the economy surged INSPITE of Team Obama and NOT because of their anti-business, job killing regulations..

  5. An excellent Christ-mass message from an excellent journalist, Craig Medred. One of the last remaining honest journalists in Alaska.

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