Homer Alaska - News

Story last updated at 5:49 PM on Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Study examines availability of seafood to area residents



By Lindsay Johnson
Staff writer

Do you eat fish? If you do, where do you get it? Do you get it as often as you want to? Can you afford it?

Soon, if they haven't already,1,500 Kenai Peninsula residences will receive a post card from the University of Alaska Fairbanks asking them to answer six questions like these as part of a new study about food security on the Kenai Peninsula.

The study is the project of Hannah Harrison, a Homer-grown UAF grad student working with research professors Phil Loring and Craig Gerlach.

The questions they're asking in this study are specifically aimed at identifying local use of seafood with an emphasis on salmon.

The researchers use the United Nations definition of food security, which Harrison summarizes as "Can you get food that's safe to eat, that's nutritious, that is affordable and that is culturally preferred?"

She said that with the abundance of food resources available on the peninsula, the idea that some residents can't access enough good food might seem strange.

But it seems to be true. From interviews conducted around the region last month, Harrison said need is up at area food pantries and a number of barriers prevent people from benefiting from local foods.

"It makes no difference if a fish is here, but if it's like $20 a pound nobody can afford it, it might as well not be here," Harrison said, also pointing out that a person can't buy a locally caught fish at a grocery store in Homer.

Overall, Alaska has much higher food insecurity rate than rest of United States, and though data indicates the Kenai rate to be lower than statewide, approximately 18 percent of residents experience food insecurity.

"The study is about identifying barriers that keep local, sustainably caught or grown foods from making it into local markets and diets at prices people can actually afford to buy it," Harrison said.

While seafood is considered a non-essential food source in some places, Harrison sees it as an important part of Southcentral Alaskans' physical and cultural health.

"My personal opinion having grown up here is that no, it's not a luxury food. This is a local food we catch it right here. It should be a part of our diets," she said.

Raised in a commercial gillnetting family, Harrison got her bachelor of science in natural resource management at UAF and is now going for a masters of science through the School of Cross-Cultural Studies there.

This project fits her criteria for helping change the world by considering the Kenai's environmental ethnography, that is, the role of this region's resources in the culture of its people: what it is to live in a fishing culture and how food security affects that culture.

Loring has a long list of publications on the topic of food security, though most has focused on subsistence in the interior.

He said the current study the first real push to involve the commercial fishery component in the question of food security. It's also a first hard look into the Kenai Peninsula.

"Based on what I know it's going to be a very productive area," Loring said, calling it a microcosm of the entire state. "You have people who hunt for subsistence, you have commercial fishing and tourism as major employers, you have a whole variety of ecosystems, you also have different communities of different cultural heritages; and you have the single line of connectivity to Anchorage," he explained.

So far, response to the study has been positive, and the researchers are hopeful to receive enough feedback from survey to make results useful to future work on the topic.

"We want to ask questions that are meaningful to the communities that we're researching and will eventually assist them in making choices about food. We don't want to just ask a question for the heck of asking," Harrison said.

The survey will come in the mail between now and the first weeks of October. It will also be available to fill out online.

Though the study sample will be limited to the 1,500 randomly selected residences, Harrison and Loring welcome input on the topic.

Email ploring@alaska.edu.

Lindsay Johnson may be reached at lindsay.johnson@homernews.com.

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