Bringing Data Alive to Improve Nutrition and Health

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Bringing Data Alive to Improve Nutrition and Health

For the Chugach Regional Resources Commission (CRRC) in Anchorage, Alaska, the knowledge gained from food assessments and reports is only as valuable as the ability to use it. With funding from First Nations Development Institute, project leaders have gathered valuable information on traditional foods and lifestyles and are now sharing it in ways that increase understanding and raise awareness. Here, data is not just a report on the shelf, but a living tool to improve the knowledge and health of the seven Tribes that make up the Chugach Region.

The landscape of Chugach

The Chugach Region covers the remote area of Prince William Sound and the Lower Cook Inlet. The area is rural, with parts only accessible by small aircraft or boat. Climate change is pervasive, and the threat to their natural resources from outside pressure and industrial development is constant. 

The area is subject to big-picture issues that affect Native populations throughout Alaska, according to CRRC Deputy Director Willow Hetrick. 

“Traditional food practices of hunting, fishing, and gathering are declining. Traditional foods are becoming scarce, and people are relying more and more on outside support,” she says. “But that support comes in forms that our bodies aren’t meant to tolerate, and that has led to increasing rates of cancer, diabetes and obesity.”

In the Chugach Region, more hardship hit with a 1964 earthquake, along with the famous Exxon Valdez Oil Spill of 1989. Hetrick explains that these two compounding issues were devastating to the Alutiiq People – their food, their self-reliance, and their future.

The CRRC, an inter-tribal fish and wildlife commission that was formed in 1984 to promote Tribal sovereignty and protect and manage natural resources, has had their work cut out for them. 

The CRCC earned the 2019 Arts and Humanities Award in the field of Distinguished Service to Education from the Governor of Alaska. Pictured here with the award are: (From left to right) Kelly Tshibaka, Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Administration; Patty Schwalenberg, Executive Director of CRRC; Robert Heinrichs, current CRRC Board Member from the Native Village of Eyak; and Beth Pipkin, former Board member from the Chenega IRA Council.

The CRCC earned the 2019 Arts and Humanities Award in the field of Distinguished Service to Education from the Governor of Alaska. Pictured here with the award are: (From left to right) Kelly Tshibaka, Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Administration; Patty Schwalenberg, Executive Director of CRRC; Robert Heinrichs, current CRRC Board Member from the Native Village of Eyak; and Beth Pipkin, former Board member from the Chenega IRA Council.

Setting out for knowledge

Representing the Tatitlek Village IRA Council, Native Village of Eyak (Cordova), Port Graham Village Council, Nanwalek IRA Council, Chenega Bay IRA Council, Qutekcak Native Tribe (Seward), and the Valdez Native Tribe, the CRRC is a leader in Tribal Natural Resources in Alaska. As such the organization leads local projects surrounding research, education, economic development, and enhancement of subsistence species. 

One project involves the region’s traditional foods – how accessible they are, how important they are, how they are being used, and what needs to be done to protect and manage them. With a belief that “food is life,” the CRRC sought funding through First Nation’s Native Agriculture and Food Systems Initiative to conduct data analysis and a workshop. 

The grant funding kicked off with a four-day training on food assessments hosted by First Nations, which Hetrick says gave all grantees a baseline start on best practices. 

“They believed in us,” she says, “And they put us in touch with a program officer who really understood the intricacies of working in a rural, offset region like Alaska.”

From there, the CRRC set out to design, distribute and collect food surveys from over 100 respondents to provide a high-level analysis of the situation. Their food assessment collection tool was unique in that it focused not just on consumption, but on food as a whole, explains Hetrick. 

“This is an over-surveyed population. People are polled routinely by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and others about food on a technical level, with questions such as ‘How many ounces of salmon do you consume a day?’”

Instead, the CRRC tool focused on food as a whole. 

“Food is life,” she says. “Food is part of our culture. It’s the holistic act of hunting, fishing, and gathering. It’s not just about eating berries, but it’s also about the walk to get those berries.”

Another important aspect of the survey is that it covered a broad region, adds Chelsea Kovalcsik, the Indian General Assistance Program Regional Environmental Coordinator for CRRC. 

“As a regional organization, we recognized that some questions might apply to the Port Graham area, but it may be different 200 miles away. We took into account a broad range of geography, with different approaches to food in each one.”

The survey resulted in a 40-page report that goes beyond government statistics and reveals the day-to-day food systems in place in these Native communities. It’s a snapshot of the Alutiiq People, their relationship with food, and the status of their health and natural resources. Further, insights from the surveys have fueled other investigations into salmon health, ocean shellfish, and dietetics and helped the organization leverage additional funding sources to advance more research.

Research that Empowers

Still, the organization recognized that a 40-page report on a shelf would be only that: a 40-page report on the shelf. Instead, to be useful, the information would need to be extracted, made into digestible information, and shared. At that point, the CRRC applied for an additional grant from First Nations to break out the data into a visual presentation. What resulted was a large-scale poster depicting specific foods of each area and local hunting, fishing, and gathering practices. The poster, which ultimately earned the CRRC the 2019 Arts and Humanities Award in the field of Distinguished Service in Education from the Governor of Alaska, has given people something they could use and refer to on their own, to understand traditional foods and celebrate their food as life.

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Moreover, it has become a tool for the People. Kovalcsik explains that these communities are inundated with “experts” coming in and asking questions, yet they are never shown where their answers go. With the poster, they have been given more control. 

“It gave power back to the Tribes,” says Kovalcsik. “They can visualize the changes we’re seeing. It’s given them that power to own their food, their own sovereignty.”

Another objective achieved by the CRRC was the production of an 80-page recipe book, which was created by including blank recipe cards in the surveys and asking respondents to complete and return them. From this outreach, they gleaned dozens of traditional recipes, plus traditional ways of harvesting and preparing foods, and they combined this with more recipes found through a library literature search. 

“This was traditional Native knowledge documented in old books, but sitting on shelves in basements,” says Hetrick. “Now, people can access them and those foods can live on.”

Knowledge for the future

These traditional foods projects have provided a foundation for the CRRC and a great data set to build from, says Kovalcsik. And it has produced visual guides to show how food is indeed life – how everything is connected — and the work surrounding traditional foods ties in with the organization’s overall approach to climate change, seawater quality, ocean acidification and other issues. 

“Now we have more information and we can let community members know what’s going on,” she says. “From there we can do more training, more on-the-ground programs. It gives us a place to start.” 

Hetrick adds that the work lends itself to further efforts toward food sovereignty – how the Tribes import food, how we consume, and how we teach people how to reside off the land, fish and wildlife. It has helped heal the generational trauma caused by the oil spill, increasing education about the resources Tribes have now, and the resources that were lost. And it has propelled partnerships that they had not known about, including with organizations in the lower 48. 

“We don’t have to recreate the wheel,” she says. “We may have unique challenges in Alaska, but everyone is facing challenges throughout Native communities everywhere. Together, we can raise each other up.”

 By Amy Jakober