With food insecurity rising, Qawalangin Tribe of Unalaska opens island’s first official food bank

The loading dock of a white building with a sign that says Qawalangin
(Theo Greenly/KUCB)

The COVID-19 pandemic has increased food insecurity for much of the country, as unemployment and poverty have increased and families have had less access to school nutrition programs because of school closures.

There has been a similar increase in Unalaska, according to local non-profit Unalaskans Against Sexual Assault and Family Violence. And while local organizations like USAFV have stepped up to help families during the pandemic, the island has just opened its first official food bank.

In 2020, the Aleutian Housing Authority, a Native non-profit aimed at providing affordable housing throughout the region, was awarded $392,000 in coronavirus relief funds to start a food bank.

The Qawalangin Tribe of Unalaska was tasked with the start up, but two years ago they didn’t have the infrastructure in place to support the project. Today, they have support from multiple donors in the community, a warehouse and a fully-stocked industrial freezer.

Robin Stepetin is the tribal services coordinator at the tribe and helped organize their first food distribution event, on Feb. 19.

Applications for food pickup were open to all community members, she said.

Unlike the state’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as SNAP, the Unalaska Food Bank doesn’t have any income requirements. Stepetin said that’s because they want to support everyone in the community that has a need.

“You don’t have to give us personal information,” she said. “The information we do ask is the name of who’s receiving it and your physical address so that if we need to deliver to you then we know where to deliver to.”

More than six million Americans enrolled in food stamps in the first three months of the coronavirus pandemic, as people across the country lost their jobs and children transitioned to at-home learning.

Unalaska was no different.

USAFV has acted as the community’s unofficial food bank for more than two decades. The organization saw a 20% increase in food assistance during the first year of the pandemic, according to Executive Director M. Lynn Crane.

“In FY20, we provided food assistance 399 times,” Crane told KUCB in a statement. “In FY21, which was our first full fiscal year of the pandemic, we provided 481 boxes, which is an increase of about 20%. So we definitely saw an increase in the last two years.”

With the Unalaska Food Bank opening, Crane said she’s excited to work with the Qawalangin Tribe to reduce food insecurity on the island and to see more fresh and subsistence foods available to community members.

Some of the items included in the tribe’s food bags include dry, canned and frozen goods. And while items like frozen meat and fish aren’t very common at food banks, Stepetin said the tribe is making an effort to have a variety of nutrient-dense and traditional foods available at all times.

Partnerships with local fish processing plants are making that possible, she said.

“We do have grant funding that is allowing us to purchase some of the food, but we have received donations from seafood processing plants for seafood products, and we are hoping to further our partnerships with local organizations and companies to accept food donations,” Stepetin said.

The Qawalangin Tribe is planning on facilitating monthly food distribution events for now, but Stepetin said her hope for the program is to create a place where community members in need can eventually access food at any given time.

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