Sunday, July 24, 2011

Ensuring that No One in Alaska Goes Hungry

Alaska is a grand and beautiful state, with mountain range after stunning mountain range!   Its land area is huge compared to the size of the Lower 48.  The population of Alaska is the 4th lowest of any state, at 710,231 people.  That’s only 1.2 people per square mile, compared to the US average of 87.4. 

Travel here is a challenge.  There are roads, as long as you want to arrive from the Alaska Highway and drive around Anchorage, Fairbanks, or a few other places.  About 80% of Alaskans live on the road system, or in Juneau, Kodiak Island, or other places served by ferries.  But the remaining 20% live in the rural west or north, where there is no interconnected road system.  The small villages provide conveniences such as schools, a store, a post office, a generator for electricity, and an airstrip.   

Both overall cost of living and food are pricey in Alaska.  A limited growing season and large areas of mountains and tundra mean that local agriculture is scarce.   Most food is transported here, and the harder it is to reach an area, the more expensive groceries are.  According to the University of Alaska Fairbanks 2010 food cost survey, food in all Alaska locations was more expensive than in Portland, OR, where it cost $106.66 per week to feed a family of four adequate nutrition at the lowest possible cost.  Of the communities listed in Alaska, food costs were lowest in Fairbanks at $129.87 per week and highest in Bethel (where everything is shipped in by air) at $272.77 per week.  Costs are even higher in the more remote villages.

Food insecurity rates in rural Alaska can rise as high as 30.4%.  But wait!  Aren’t Alaskans able to rely on subsistence hunting and fishing to meet their dietary needs?  No.  In 1999, rural Alaskans only acquired 35% of their food from subsistence hunting and fishing.  It’s very important to ensure that for the “western” portion of their diets, they have access to healthy foods instead of just the highly-processed and over-sweetened food that tends to be available in small stores. 
From left to right, Food Bank of Alaska's Mariko Churchill, Shipping Manager, Susannah Morgan, Executive Director,
Jim Mackenzie, Director of Development and Communication, and Robin Stilwell, Director of Advocacy
We were particularly interested in learning how supplemental food reaches people who need it in all parts of Alaska, so we visited the Food Bank of Alaska.  We talked with Susannah Morgan, Executive Director, Jim Mackenzie, Director of Development and Communication, Mariko Churchill, Shipping Manager, and Robin Stilwell, Director of Advocacy, to learn how they’ve solved the complex challenges they face.  

The Food Bank of Alaska is located in Anchorage, a logical placement since more than 60% of Alaska’s population lives nearby.  Smaller partner food banks serve areas around Juneau, Fairbanks, Soldotna, and Kodiak, so altogether about 80% of the population of Alaska is located relatively near a food bank that can be used by local food pantries, soup kitchens, and shelters to obtain and distribute food to those in need.

But getting food to the rural villages is more of a challenge.  In most cases, it needs to be delivered by air.  Luckily, there’s a system that was put in place specifically for Alaska, called Alaska Bypass Mail, (See  Chapter 8 in Intra-Alaska Mail Service by Air, USPS, 2000).  Shipments of over 1,000 pounds can be sent to rural post offices for about $0.40 per pound.  As Mariko explained, when a shipment is ready, she calls the post office, and the post office tells her which airline will take it and at what time.   She delivers the shipment directly to that air carrier, bypassing the post office completely.  Bypass shipping costs are much less than regular air freight rates or parcel post, but still much higher than the $0.07 that most food banks in the Lower 48 pay for truck shipping.  For shipments that cannot go by Bypass Mail, Mariko maintains a large spreadsheet to keep track of what carriers can deliver shelf-stable, chilled, or frozen food to each agency and village.

Another complication in rural shipping is that IRS rules require that only 501(c)(3) non-profit  or religious organizations can distribute donated food.  Why is that an issue?  Well, in rural Alaska, often the regional or village Alaska Native Corporation would be the most appropriate or only organization capable of managing food distribution.  But, these native corporations are for-profit corporations created as part of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in 1971.  Therefore, instead of food donated or collected through food drives, all the supplemental food sent to most rural Alaskan villages is government-funded USDA food.

The Food Bank of Alaska runs three USDA commodity programs and two USDA child feeding programs for the state of Alaska:
  • The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) for low-income Americans.  Commodity foods come to the Food Bank and are given out to agencies in quantities dependent on the number of people in poverty that they serve.
  • Commodities Supplemental Food Program (CSFP) for seniors, post-partum women and children to age 6.  The food bank assembles 1600 boxes per month containing cereal, juice, canned vegetables, canned fruits, peanut butter or dried beans, canned meat, pasta or rice, evaporated milk, and powdered milk.  These boxes are only sent out to agencies where they can be trucked, and to Kodiak and Wrangell, where they have negotiated free shipping.
  • Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR).   Even though Native Alaskans don’t live on reservations, they may be eligible to choose between SNAP (food stamps) and this program designed for Native Americans who live great distances from a store.  FDPIR is seen as a larger component of the family’s diet and includes larger quantities and more variety (perhaps 60 items) than the other commodity programs.  Nevertheless, FDPIR is the smallest of the government programs because, as Susannah explained, in small villages that do have access to a reasonable store, SNAP provides a much better option – not only does it allow the client choice of foods to purchase, but it also supports the store and helps the local economy.
  • Child and Adult Care Feeding Program (CACFP). This program reimburses day care, after school, and recreational programs for food they provide to people in need. CACFP will also be growing, since the US Child Nutrition Act authorized payment for dinners at child care sites, and the increased reimbursement rate makes it financially feasible to ship food to rural Alaska locations. 
  • Summer Food Service Program (SFSP), which reimburses programs for either lunch or dinner and breakfast or snack for eligible children or sites during the summer.  According to Robin, SFSP is a proud recent addition and the fastest growing program run by the Food Bank of Alaska.  The food bank is currently supplying summer lunches to 70 sites.  For local sites, they contract with various vendors to supply freshly made lunches.  For rural sites, they provide shelf-stable, bag lunches from JA Food Systems that meet all USDA requirements and can simply be handed out to each child. 
Before an agency can receive food from any of the above programs, it must agree to follow the USDA guidelines for record-keeping.  This isn’t a problem in the more populated areas, since the agencies tend to have stable staff who can take on this task.  However, in the more rural areas where the agencies are very small and often run by one dedicated volunteer who may not be stay very long, the paperwork becomes more of a burden.  Therefore, the Food Bank of Alaska does almost all the administrative work itself and only requires the sites to keep track of how many meals they serve or how many commodities they hand out. 

In all, last year the Food Bank of Alaska provided about 6 million pounds of food to food-insecure Alaskans.  This year, according to Jim, they’re on track to provide 6.5 million.  That sounds like a lot, but according to Susannah, that’s only about half the amount required to provide adequate supplemental food for those in need in Alaska. 

Beyond acquiring and distributing enough supplemental food, perhaps the biggest challenge is supplying fresh produce.  The Food Bank of Alaska has tackled this issue for neighborhoods in Anchorage with their Mobile Food Pantry.  Five days a week, the pantry takes produce out to low income communities.  Produce that would go bad if held in the warehouse for another day can be on the table of a hungry person instead. 

Susannah’s dream is to have a mobile food pantry with wings so some of that produce could reach sites off the road system. 

Anybody got an extra airplane?

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