August 10, 2015
One Wednesday summer day a 5-year old and her cousin shuffle in to the home economics room of the Kaveolook School in Kaktovik. The girl finds one of her friends at the table and they sit together happily. The boy stands with his aunt, hesitant until he sees the cutting boards and knives laid out on the table. Once everyone has hands washed and aprons on, he sets to work chopping imaginary foods until the real ingredients come out.
A new program of Iḷisaġvik College Cooperative Extension, Healthy Futures, is working to empower youth in North Slope villages preparing home-cooked meals for themselves and their families. Healthy Futures began cooking classes last Fall in the seven North Slope communities outside Barrow.
A Volunteer in Service to America (VISTA) Charlotte Ambrozek has been designing and implementing a grant that emphasizes family health and well-being through volunteer-run nutritional education. She has also started a cooking program for youth and young adults. Residents of the Slope are constricted in their healthy eating choices by the limited supply of fruits and vegetables, particularly during the winter. Healthy Futures seeks to increase youth and young adults’ knowledge of available healthy food options and empower them with the skills to prepare these foods for their families and communities.
What emerged was year round cooking classes, working around school schedules and community events such as the whaling season. Summer allows for week-long cooking camps where students can build on skills daily and discover a range of recipes. Each student makes a full recipe so they not only are able to try the food, but can share with their family or community. For instance, in Nuiqsut the students shared their carrot and pineapple muffins with the cleanup crew at the City Office.
Although Healthy Futures is only in its first year, 217 village youth have participated in healthy eating programs in six out of seven North Slope communities. Participating families on an exit survey indicate that there is some adoption of the recipes in the home.
Ultimately the program will engage all seven North Slope communities. The goal is to transition the program to community stakeholders, who will teach cooking classes with support from the VISTA program.
That day in the Kaktovik kitchen, the cousins prepared chili from scratch with the help of their aunt. Using a traditional protein source (tuttu, or caribou) and vegetables this chili is not only healthier and more culturally appropriate, but also more affordable and more fun! Reconnecting families through hands-on time together with healthy and traditional foods could be a key to unlocking a healthy future for North Slope communities.