• State of Alaska updates safe seafood consumption guidelines

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Eat all the salmon you want, but limit your amount of salmon shark, the Alaska Section of Epidemiology (part of the Division of Public Health) said when it recently updated its safe seafood consumption guidelines.

The Section of Epidemiology, in partnership with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, started testing Alaska seafood for toxic heavy metals, such as mercury, and other pollutants, such as pesticides, back in 2001. The main reason for the research was to determine safe levels of seafood consumption for pregnant women, nursing mothers, infants, and others. According to the Alaska Dispatch News, the research involved testing fish, and using human hair samples to see how the heavy metals moved from species to species.

The Division of Public Health Division recommends eating fish at least twice a week. Medical research shows salmon are high in omega 3 fatty acids, which are believed to improve cholesterol and fight heart disease. Many types of Alaska seafood also are part of the traditional Alaska Native diet.

The good news is Alaska’s five salmon varieties (chinook/king, sockeye/red, coho/silver, chum/keta/dog, and humpy/pink) all tested as safe for everybody, with no limitations for pregnant women or others, as did halibut smaller than 40 pounds and Alaska pollock (commonly found in fish sticks and fast food fishburgers). This year’s expanded testing increased the number of safe-for-all species to 23 from 11 in 2007 (see chart above for complete list).

However, there were some seafood species where the Office of Epidemiology suggests consumption limits. Alaskans should use a point system, where people can eat up to 12 points a week (the safe species get zero points), with points based on six-ounce portions. Halibut (40-80 pounds), lingcod (35-40 inches) and lake trout are worth three points. Halibut (80-140 pounds), lingcod (40-45 inches) and longnose skate are worth four points. Halibut (140-220 pounds) and yelloweye rockfish are worth six points. Halibut (220 pounds or larger), lingcod (45 inches or longer), salmon shark and spiny dogfish are worth 12 points and should only be eaten once per week.

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• Quest cards and debit cards will be accepted starting with the Aug. 18 Sitka Farmers Market

The Sitka Local Foods Network will begin accepting Quest and debit cards for the purchase of locally grown and made products during its fourth Sitka Farmers Market of the summer, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 18, at Alaska Native Brotherhood Hall (235 Katlian St.).

The Sitka Farmers Market received funding from the Alaska Farmers Market-Quest Card Program to purchase a wireless card reader, also known as an EBT (electronic benefit transfer) machine. The EBT machine allows Quest customers to use their food stamps and TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) benefits to purchase fresh, local food at the market. The EBT machine allows customers to use their regular debit and credit cards to purchase food and other items, such as locally made crafts.

Many farmers markets have accepted food stamps, TANF benefits and WIC coupons for produce for several years, but in recent years all 50 states stopped using paper coupons and started using electronic transfers for their benefits (putting them on plastic cards that work like debit/credit cards). Since most farmers markets do not have access to electricity and phone lines during the market, they now required a wireless machine to handle these benefits. This system is expensive and difficult for most farmers markets to offer, so the use of food stamps and other benefits dropped dramatically. The goal of the Alaska Farmers Market-Quest Card Program is to help the markets be able to purchase a machine so they can continue to offer fresh, local food to low-income Alaskans and offering another payment option for other residents. The Sitka Local Foods Network will match dollar-for-dollar up to $20 of Quest card benefits so people using Quest cards have access to double the produce at the market.

“Providing appropriate EBT technology at farmers markets can improve the diets and subsequently the health of Sitkans who rely on food stamps by increasing access to fresh, local and affordable vegetables and fruits,” said Sitka Local Foods Network Board Treasurer Lisa Sadleir-Hart, a registered dietitian. “Shopping at farmers markets has been shown in several studies to increase fruit and vegetable purchases and consumption among nutrition assistance participants, and fruits and vegetables sold at farmers markets often are equal in price to or less expensive than seasonal produce at grocery stores.”

To use the Quest cards or your debit card at the Sitka Farmers Market, look for the Information Booth inside ANB Hall and let the staff person know you’d like to use your card at the market and how much you plan to spend. The staff person will swipe your card through the EBT machine, have you enter your PIN, then provide you with Quest and Debit tokens in the amount you requested (there is a $2 service charge for debit card transactions). Look for vendors with signs saying “Quest and Debit Tokens Accepted Here” (some vendors only accept Debit tokens). Quest customers can purchase foods allowed on food stamps, such as fruits and vegetables, bread, meat, seafood, honey and jam. Food and beverages meant to be eaten right away, such as sandwiches and hot coffee, cannot be purchased with Quest tokens. Debit card tokens can be used to purchase anything offered at the market. If you do not spend all of your tokens, you can save the remaining tokens for the next market or take them back to the Information Booth to be credited back to your card (credit can only be given for tokens purchased that day, and for no more than the amount purchased that day). Debit card users can return their unused tokens, but another $2 service fee will apply for the transaction.

This project is a collaboration of the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services Divisions of Public Health and Public Assistance, the Department of Natural Resources Division of Agriculture, the SouthEast Alaska Regional Health Consortium (SEARHC) Health Promotion Division, and the Sitka Local Foods Network. For more info about the Alaska Farmers Market-Quest Card Program, go to http://www.hss.state.ak.us/dph/chronic/nutrition/farmersmarket-quest/default.htm. For information about the Alaska Quest Program, visit http://www.akquest.alaska.gov/. For info about the Sitka Farmers Market, go to http://www.sitkalocalfoodsnetwork.org/. Vendors wanting to sign up to accept Quest card and debit card tokens can contact Sitka Farmers Market Manager Johanna Willingham at johanna.willingham@gmail.com or 738-8336.

• Sitka Farmers Market vendor agreement to accept EBT/Quest tokens (2012)

• Wealth of resources available to learn about traditional foods

A selection of traditional plant books that are in popular use in Southeast Alaska

A selection of traditional plant books that are in popular use in Southeast Alaska

Living in Southeast Alaska, Sitka residents are exposed to a wealth of traditional foods that grow in our forests or can be found along our beaches. But many Sitka residents aren’t familiar with which plants are safe to eat, and which plants they should avoid. They also aren’t familiar with when are the prime times to gather certain plants.

In recent years, several books have been published to help teach people more about traditional plants and how they can be used. There also have been other groups, such as the Sitka Tribe of Alaska’s Kayaaní Commission, the Sealaska Heritage Institute and the Alaska Native Knowledge Network, that have posted traditional plant information online, including complete curriculum outlines for teachers to use in their classrooms.

Some of the more popular books used in Sitka (many of these can be found at Old Harbor Books) include:

  • Wild Edible & Medicinal Plants: Alaska, Canada & Pacific Northwest Rainforest: An Introductory Pocket Trail Guide (Volumes 1 and 2) by Carol R. Biggs
  • Wild Edible and Poisonous Plants of Alaska by the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service (FNH-00028)
  • Collecting and Using Alaska’s Wild Berries and Other Wild Products by the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service (FNH-00120)

In addition to these books, the Sealaska Heritage Institute has created curriculum resources using the Tlingít and Haida languages that are built around using traditional foods (links on language names go to Grades K-2 versions, but upper-lever courses available on main curriculum link). Examples of the Tlingít and Haida Grade K-2 courses for Plants are linked below as PDF documents, but there also are separate courses for beach greens, berries, cedar trees, hemlock trees, spruce trees, herring, hooligan, salmon, sea mammals, as well as for other cultural knowledge such as canoes, totem poles and Elizabeth Peratrovich.

The Alaska Native Knowledge Network also some curriculum resources posted online for Tlingít, Haida and Tsimshian culture, including some by Sitka teacher Pauline Duncan. The Alaska Native Plant Society has some information on traditional plant use, but the group is geared more toward the Anchorage area. The Alaska Natural History Program publishes an online Alaska Rare Plant Field Guide. The University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service has online and printed guides available on plant identification, berries and berry use, and even has online tutorials about how to home can jams and jellies.

On a related note, the SouthEast Alaska Regional Health Consortium (SEARHC) Diabetes Program will be turning its focus to traditional living classes for 2011. The program will focus on traditional foods and activities to teach its Native patients and other community members how to prevent and manage their diabetes (the SEARHC Diabetes Program operates throughout Southeast Alaska, not just in Sitka). The SEARHC Diabetes Program is looking for resident experts in traditional living (fishing, hunting, gathering, preparation, storage, gardening, etc.) who can help teach these skills to others. The program also wants to learn what types of classes people want to see offered in their communities. For more information, contact SEARHC Health Educator Renae Mathson at 966-8797 or renae.mathson@searhc.org.

Sealaska Heritage Institute Tlingít plant curriculum (Grades K-2)

Sealaska Heritage Institute Haida plant curriculum (Grades K-2)

UAF Cooperative Extension Service Native Plants of Alaska page on devil’s club

Nellie’s Recipes: An ANTHC (Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium) Traditional Food Cookbook for Assisted Living Homes

Alaska Traditional Food Resources (list from Eat Smart Alaska program run by Alaska Division of Public Health)

• Sitka represented at first meeting of new Alaska Food Policy Council

Kerry MacLane grills black cod for the Alaska Longline Fisherman's Association booth at an August 2009 Sitka Farmers Market

Kerry MacLane grills black cod for the Alaska Longline Fisherman's Association booth at an August 2009 Sitka Farmers Market

When the new Alaska Food Policy Council held its first meeting in Anchorage last month, Sitka Local Foods Network president Kerry MacLane was among the 80 or so people in attendance.

“There were nutritionists, politicians, state and federal government folks galore, Native groups, Alaska ranchers (of reindeer, musk ox, elk, goats and even cows), our one creamery, schools, WIC (Women, Infants, Children supplemental nutrition program), restaurants, truckers, a food wholesaler and even some people growing fruits and vegetables,” said Kerry, whose meeting notes are linked as a PDF file at the bottom of this story. “I was honored to represent Sitka at the first meeting of the Alaska Food Policy Council.”

The Alaska Food Policy Council is a new venture in Alaska, but food policy councils are becoming more common around the country at the state and regional level, especially as more people are becoming concerned about where their food comes from and what’s in it. The first meeting of the Alaska Food Policy Council featured guest speaker Mark Winne of the Community Food Security Coalition, who discussed what food policy councils do, and there was a panel of experts from around the state who gave brief presentations about different parts of Alaska’s food system. Many of the participants also took an online survey about Alaska’s food system, which helped provide guidance for the two-day meeting.

“This group will take a critical look at our current food system and start thinking about ideas for building a stronger regional system,” Daniel Consenstein, executive director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Alaska Farm Service Agency, wrote about the meeting. “Most of these stakeholders know that keeping more of our food dollars in Alaska will help create jobs and spur economic development. They know that if Alaska can produce more of its own food, we can build healthier communities and be less vulnerable to food disruptions in times of emergencies. The long-term goals of the Food Policy Council will be to identify barriers to building a viable Alaskan food system, create a strategic plan to address these barriers, and make the necessary recommendations to decision makers to implement this plan. Over the next year, this group will develop an action plan to make Alaska more food secure.”

Photo courtesy of USDA Agricultural Research Service Image Gallery / Photo by Scott Bauer -- The average American eats 142 pounds of potatoes a year, making the tubers the vegetable of choice in this country

Photo courtesy of USDA Agricultural Research Service Image Gallery / Photo by Scott Bauer -- The average American eats 142 pounds of potatoes a year, making the tubers the vegetable of choice in this country

Diane Peck of the Alaska Division of Public Health is coordinating the Alaska Food Policy Council, which is having its creation funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and from a two-year grant from the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services Obesity Prevention and Control Program (grant originally provided through the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention). Detailed meeting minutes and a purpose and next steps document are linked below as PDF files.

The University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences posted a good, detailed wrap-up of the first meeting on its blog, and the University of Alaska’s “Statewide Voice” also had an article about the meeting.

The creation of the Alaska Food Policy Council has sparked regional interest in Southeast Alaska. The Health, Education and Social Services committee of the Southeast Conference will meet by teleconference at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, June 22, to discuss the Alaska Food Policy Council (click Calendar and Events on the link to get call-in numbers and codes). “We have opportunity to advance our local food production and utilize the bounty of our region to sustain our people and improve our health,” Southeast Conference executive director Shelly Wright wrote about the Alaska Food Policy Council.

“There are numerous benefits that food policy changes could mean for residents of Southeast Alaska,” Kerry MacLane said. “The bycatch regulations could be modified to encourage great recovery, processing and distribution. This would result in affordable fish in local markets, schools, health institutions and statewide. Federal, state and local government institutions would have more incentives and few restrictions to include local food in their purchases. More economic development funds could be made available to food system-related entrepreneurs. State and federal storage of (Alaska) emergency food supplies could be in our communities instead of in Portland, Ore. The Alaska Food Policy Council can help Alaskans increase our self-reliance and be more prepared for the coming rise in fuel costs.”

To learn more about the Alaska Food Policy Council, contact Diane Peck with the Alaska Division of Public Health at 1-907-269-8447 (Anchorage) or by e-mail at diane.peck@alaska.gov. Most of the council’s communication and meetings will be by e-mail and teleconference.

Minutes from the May 18-19, 2010, first meeting of the Alaska Food Policy Council

Purpose and next steps for Alaska Food Policy Council

Kerry MacLane’s notes on the first meeting of the Alaska Food Policy Council