Eating Well, Like Our Ancestors Did

When a doctor told an Alaska Native breast cancer survivor to eat kale when she really wanted sea grass, and another health care provider questioned the safety of tea made from traditional plants, the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium knew it needed a change. Focusing on proactive steps in prevention – rather than treatment – the consortium’s Wellness and Prevention Division created a community-wide initiative to help reconnect people to their Native foods.

For many indigenous communities, like Alaska, the movement to incorporate healthier foods into diets is not about bringing in new foods, like kale, but looking differently at foods that already exist. They are traditional vegetables, fruits, plants, animals and grains that have sustained Native communities since the beginning of time.

The Store Outside Your Door

In Alaska villages, many Indian reservations in the Lower 48, and low-income urban areas, many communities are considered “food deserts” by residents and outsiders alike. With their geographic isolation and relatively small populations, accessing fresh, healthy foods is difficult and expensive. Even when people see fresh produce in stores, few can afford it.

“To the people who say they don’t have healthy foods or can’t afford them, we say, ‘there’s a lot outside and you need to put a new lens on it’,” says Dr. Gary Ferguson, director of Wellness and Prevention for Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium (ANTHC). ANTHC created The Store Outside Your Door as a way to help promote traditional, Native foods and teach Alaska Native people how to sustain traditional and subsistence lifestyles.

In the minds of Alaska Native elders, babies should have a taste of Native foods: teething on salmon and growing up with it throughout life. The Store Outside Your Door is an initiative that promotes salmon and other traditional foods and plants that have sustained Native peoples for thousands of years. The idea is to help people return, in some form, to the Alaska Native diet - very low in carbohydrates, high in healthy fats and proteins – that largely had disappeared by the 1980s. It uses several tools that target various sectors and age groups: