SITKA, Alaska – The Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association (ALFA) is pleased to announce it was selected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to receive $209,100 from a Regional Food System Partnerships (RFSP) grant as part of the Agriculture Marketing Service’s Local Agriculture Marketing Program (LAMP). ALFA was one of 30 projects selected across 24 states to receive an RFSP grant and will use the funding to foster new partnerships around Alaska that help build a more resilient regional food system, specifically when it comes to local seafood access and seafood industry workforce development.
The impacts of Covid-19 highlighted long standing workforce development and food insecurity issues in Alaska. The seafood industry provides the backbone of coastal economies but relies on outside labor for processing, marketing, and shipping. Quarantine requirements led to significant labor shortages and high costs. In addition, currently less than 1 percent of the seafood caught in Alaska stays in Alaska to benefit the local economy. Alaska is one of the top five most food insecure states in the nation. It is estimated 95 percent of the $2 billion of food Alaskans purchase each year is imported, and 14 percent of Alaskans, including 20 percent of children, face food insecurity.
In response to the pandemic and food insecurity in Alaska, in March 2020, the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association formed a statewide coalition of nonprofits, tribal organizations, military organizations, city and boroughs, foundations, fishermen, and seafood processors to address food insecurity and workforce development challenges. The coalition was made possible with funding from Catch Together; a nonprofit that supports innovative conservation endeavors and fishermen-led efforts that address long-term access to local fishery resources. This initiative, which became known as the Seafood Donation Program, provided stipends and workforce support to the seafood industry and deployed $2.5 million to purchase local seafood for distribution, providing more than 630,000 free meals of Alaska seafood to individuals and families facing food insecurity.
With funding from the USDA, ALFA will develop and implement a two-year assessment that looks at its pilot Seafood Donation Program and the feasibility of potentially continuing and expanding it into an ongoing program. In addition, the assessment will look at current seafood industry workforce development programs and identify gaps and barriers keeping local Alaskans from participating in the seafood industry. The project will culminate with the development of a feasibility study for a ten-year statewide seafood distribution and workforce development plan with emphasis on cultural relevance of seafood and serving marginalized communities.
“We’re honored to carry this project forward and help lay the groundwork for new projects and programs in Alaska that could help make our communities healthier and more resilient,” said Linda Behnken, executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association. “Thanks to this support from the USDA, we’ll be able to work with a wide range of partners to assess where the biggest needs and opportunities are for ensuring that our local food systems are better prepared for future disruptions such as COVID-19, and that we have the tools in place to encourage local employment in our local seafood industry.”
As a “partnership” grant, ALFA’s project will rely heavily on the engagement of diverse stakeholders and will be guided by a formal steering committee including representatives from Alaska tribes, seafood distributors, national and state philanthropic and foundation leadership, chefs, community, and policy leaders as well as youth representatives. Some of these steering committee members will include founding partners of the Seafood Donation Program, including Sam Schimmel from Kenai, who helped spearhead several salmon distributions to Alaska Native families in the Anchorage and Fairbanks communities.
“I’m really excited to be part of this project and help create new, locally grown solutions to some very complex problems,” Schimmel said. “We know that these needs are not going away, so this project is an important opportunity for us to all come together, share information, and figure out how we can ensure our Alaska Native communities continue to have access to the native foods that keep us connected to our traditions and to our cultures.”
“There’s no question that Alaska’s seafood industry faces a lot of challenges when it comes to workforce, whether that’s graying of the fleet or lack of new recruitment into the fisheries,” said Norm Pillen, president of Seafood Producers Cooperative in Sitka. “I”m looking forward to seeing what we learn through this project and how it can help advance conversations already underway about the future of Alaska’s seafood industry and our coastal communities.”
The funding is made possible through grant programs administered by the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) as part of the Local Agriculture Marketing Program (LAMP) — the Farmers Market Promotion Program (FMPP), the Local Food Promotion Program (LFPP), and the Regional Food System Partnerships (RFSP).