The Importance of Local Foods in Mitigating Poverty-Related Food Insecurity in Rural South Central and Southeastern Alaska

Year: 2013

Research Center: Southern Rural Development Center, Mississippi State University

Investigator: Burke, Tracey and Cara Durr

Institution: University of Alaska-Anchorage

Project Contact:
Tracey Burke
University of Alaska-Anchorage
School of Social Work
3211 Providence Drive
Anchorage, AK 99508
Phone: 907-786-6905


There are three distinct discourses about food security and insecurity in Alaska and the Arctic, focusing on:

  1. Locally grown foods/sustainability, which highlights the dangers posed by reliance on foods imported from southern regions and the role of Alaskan agriculture as a part of disaster preparedness. Local agriculture comprises a small but emerging segment of the food market.
  2. Subsistence, which focuses on the cultural as well as nutritional importance of wild foods for Alaska Native peoples, and the threats posed by climate change. The superiority of many wild foods compared to those available in local stores is emphasized. Many non-Natives also participate in hunting, fishing, and gathering, but there is a widespread perception that hunting and fishing are hobbies for non-Natives, and therefore matter less to them than to Native Alaskans as a regularly recurring food source.
  3. Poverty and economic insecurity, in which food is one among many expenses that families are juggling as they attempt to make ends meet.

Existing literature suggests that there has been limited crossover among these discourses. Insofar as they do overlap, studies find that Alaskans with higher incomes are more likely to harvest wild foods, purchase food from farmers, and consume foods from their own gardens. Conversely, Alaskans with incomes below the poverty level are least likely to purchase from farmers or eat from their own gardens. The fact that Alaskans below the poverty line fall into the middle range of likelihood to harvest wild foods probably reflects the high percentage of Alaska Native people who are poor. This project underscores that the three discourses must be brought together by addressing the consequential role that local foods—both wild and cultivated—play in enhancing food security in two rural regions of the State.

The project utilized a research team with a background in social services and primarily interested in food insecurity as it intersects with poverty. Little is known about poverty-related food insecurity in rural Alaska. Existing studies describing low-income, food-insecure Alaskans have emphasized urban Alaska. What little information there is about rural Alaskans does not differentiate among regions or communities.

The goal of this study was to learn more about the experiences of food insecurity in regions of rural Alaska that are accessible by land transportation, understanding that the experiences of residents of fly-in-only communities are probably quite different. Thirty-four users of food pantries in 9 communities in rural south central and southeastern Alaska were asked about what they eat, what they would like to eat, and their experiences procuring food from various sources including the pantry where they were recruited. The semi-structured ethnographic interviews were analyzed using methods drawn from grounded theory.

All the communities are accessible by road, ferry, or both and all have active pantries partnering with Food Bank of Alaska, the only Statewide food bank. The people in the convenience sample picking up food for their families are predominantly White, which is not surprising in these regions, and mostly female. About half of households have at least one working adult, although few of them work year-round and full-time. Half of the households include at least one minor child. Most families receive some sort of means-tested assistance; about half receive electronic benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly food stamps.

The study reveals a greater reliance on, and desire for, local foods, both wild and cultivated, than was expected in this mostly non-Native sample. A preliminary negative association was found between the degree of involvement with local foods—whether through growing, harvesting, and processing by individuals or through gifting and trading—and participation in SNAP. People who are relatively more involved with local foods are less likely to use SNAP benefits. Everyone in the sample relies on pantry food to some extent (that is, the analysis reveals that the pantry plays a central role in the family’s eating for about half the sample), so clearly local foods are no panacea for food insecurity.

As a group, people in the study prefer local foods. They are aware of the nutritional benefits of fresh produce and wild proteins, and they report that the food available in their stores is not only expensive but often of lesser quality, especially perishables. In addition, people want to be self-sufficient. They emphasize both the compromises they feel they are making in accepting assistance, and the pride they take in harvesting and processing their own foods. However, these activities require specialized equipment and knowledge, and not everyone has these two key elements. Not everyone deemed more highly involved with local foods has their own equipment and knowledge either, but they have social ties with people who do. Indeed, level of involvement with local foods and level of connectedness in the community also are associated.

Findings suggest that the preference for local foods and the availability of wild proteins, in particular, can be leveraged to enhance both food security and self-sufficiency for low-income Alaskans in rural communities accessible by surface transportation.