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 Alaskahistory.org. “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.
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.
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.