This Sept. 4, 2015 photo released by the U.S. Public Health Service shows a package of donated musk ox meat in Kotzebue, Alaska. Now that the long-term senior care facility in Kotzebue just began incorporating traditional foods into the regular menu, its Alaska Native residents no longer have to just wait for monthly family potlucks to enjoy the taste of the subsistence foods they grew up with. (Chris Dankmeyer/U.S. Public Health Service via AP)

This Sept. 4, 2015 photo released by the U.S. Public Health Service shows a package of donated musk ox meat in Kotzebue, Alaska. Now that the long-term senior care facility in Kotzebue just began incorporating traditional foods into the regular menu, its Alaska Native residents no longer have to just wait for monthly family potlucks to enjoy the taste of the subsistence foods they grew up with. (Chris Dankmeyer/U.S. Public Health Service via AP)

New processing plant prepares traditional Alaska Native food

  • By Rachel D'oro
  • Tuesday, November 24, 2015 10:48pm
  • News

ANCHORAGE — First it was musk ox stew. Then the Alaska nursing home served up musk ox meatloaf to its elderly Inupiat residents and their visiting family members.

The reaction at the long-term residential senior care facility was immediate. “’It was the bomb!’” is how home administrator Val Kreil recalled one young relative describing it. “You don’t hear that every day about meatloaf.”

The facility in Kotzebue, a commercial hub of 3,100 people in northwest Alaska, is incorporating traditional foods donated by hunters into the regular menu — a practice that’s gaining interest nationally under a new federal law.

The measure, passed last year, was largely modeled after an Alaska law and allows donations by approved sources to nursing homes, child nutrition programs and other public and nonprofit facilities, including those run by Indian tribes and tribal groups.

Traditional foods that can be obtained commercially, such as corn and bison, already have been served in some facilities, but the new law will allow access to a wider selection of foods, including game like venison, moose and caribou.

“It opens doors for our tribes and their citizens to continue having access to traditional foods,” said Leslie Wheelock director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s office of tribal relations. “It eases the way, I think, tremendously.”

The Birds Springs chapter of the Navajo Nation in Arizona is developing a 20-bed nursing home it hopes to open next year, and the tribe hopes the menu will include elk, deer and other staples like squash and beans from Navajo farmers.

“We owe it to our elders to get them what their lifestyles are accustomed to, and what they respond to physically, mentally, spiritually,” said Thomas Walker, a planner with the chapter.

Under Alaska’s law, other organizations have served traditional foods in their facilities over the years, according to Lorinda Lhotka with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.

Boosting the new endeavor in Kotzebue, however, is a new plant down the road that is processing and storing the meat of animals donated by local hunters, forging a partnership with the 18-bed nursing home that is unique for the time being.

Both facilities are run by the Maniilaq Association, a regional tribal health care nonprofit based in Kotzebue.

The first meat processed was from a state-donated musk ox carcass. The residents got their first taste of it in early September. Until then, they had to wait for monthly family potlucks for a taste of the subsistence food they grew up with.

Most recently, the plant processed caribou meat for the nursing home, called Utugganaat Inaat — Inupiat for “a place for elders.” Some of the meat went into caribou stew with potatoes.

“It was wonderful,” said resident Mary Reed, 80. “I haven’t had it in a while.”

Before opening the plant in July, Maniilaq officials had to work through a maze of regulations with various agencies.

Initially, Maniilaq officials figured they had to get USDA approval. As it turned out, USDA provisions did not directly address such game as moose and caribou, just buffalo, bison and elk, Kreil said.

Ultimately, the USDA deferred the food safety oversight to the state DEC. All the laws were already in place. It was just a matter of juggling them to fit in a workable way, according to Maniilaq sanitarian Chris Dankmeyer.

It’s too early to tally any cost savings involved in accepting donated meets, according to Maniilaq officials.

But it costs up to $100 to purchase a 40-pound case of ground beef, plus $.78 a pound to fly it from Anchorage, so using ground musk ox or other donated meat instead is expected to add up, officials said.

The real payoff for some is the joy elders receive from their favorite traditional foods.

While many Western foods are picked at or left on plates, subsistence meals tend to be gobbled up, according to Cyrus Harris, whose job with Maniilaq includes hunting for the needs of elders.

“It makes a huge difference,” he said.

This Sept. 2, 2015 photo released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows diners at a long-term senior care facility in Kotzebue, Alaska. Now that the long-term senior care facility in Kotzebue just began incorporating traditional foods into the regular menu, its Alaska Native residents no longer have to just wait for monthly family potlucks to enjoy the taste of the subsistence foods they grew up with. (Sedelta Oosahwee/U.S. Department of Agriculture via AP)

This Sept. 2, 2015 photo released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows diners at a long-term senior care facility in Kotzebue, Alaska. Now that the long-term senior care facility in Kotzebue just began incorporating traditional foods into the regular menu, its Alaska Native residents no longer have to just wait for monthly family potlucks to enjoy the taste of the subsistence foods they grew up with. (Sedelta Oosahwee/U.S. Department of Agriculture via AP)

More in News

File
Seward face covering mandate goes into effect Wednesday

It remains in effect for 30 days or until the declaration of emergency expires and is not renewed

COVID-19. (Image courtesy CDC)
13 COVID deaths announced, 3 on peninsula

DHSS reported 583 new cases in Alaska on Tuesday

Image via Kenai Peninsula Borough School District
District extends remote learning through Dec. 18 for 34 schools

Dec. 18 is the end of the quarter for most district schools

AP Photo/Matt Slocum, File
In this Tuesday, Nov. 17 file photo, manager Yllka Murati waits for a delivery driver to pick up takeout orders behind a partition displaying a sign to remind customers to wear a mask, at the Penrose Diner, in south Philadelphia. Despite the expected arrival of COVID-19 vaccines in just a few weeks, it could take several months — probably well into 2021 — before things get back to something close to normal in the U.S. and Americans can once again go to the movies, cheer at an NBA game or give Grandma a hug.
Officials: Keep Thanksgiving small; celebrate virtually

CDC and public health offer guidelines for Thanksgiving celebrations

Homer City Hall. (Homer News file photo)
City Council votes to reinstate plastic bag ban

City manager authorized to negotiate Homer Spit lease with Salmon Sisters

COVID-19. (Image courtesy CDC)
503 new cases; borough positivity rate hits 14.65%

Affected peninsula communities include Kenai, Other North, Soldotna and Seward

In this March 18, 2020 file photo, Thomas Waerner, of Norway, celebrates his win in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Nome, Alaska. The world’s most famous sled dog race will go forward in 2021 officials are preparing for every potential contingency now for what the coronavirus and the world might look like in March when the Iditarod starts. It’s not the mushers that worry Iditarod CEO Rob Urbach; they’re used to social distancing along the 1,000 mile trail. The headaches start with what to do with hundreds of volunteers needed to run the race, some scattered in villages along the trail between Anchorage and Nome, to protect them and the village populations. (Marc Lester/Anchorage Daily News via AP, File)
Virus restrictions lead Norwegian champ to drop Iditarod

“I cannot find a way to get the dogs to Alaska.”

Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer, addresses reporters during a Wendesday, March 25, 2020 press conference in the Atwood Building in Anchorage, Alaska. (Photo courtesy Office of the Governor)
First COVID vaccines could arrive in Alaska next month

Pfizer announced their COVID-19 vaccine candidate earlier this month, with Moderna not long after

Most Read