Rural Alaska residents participate in a subsistence lifestyle including activities such as salmon fishing, moose hunting, berry picking, and more. The availability of fresh healthy produce to complement healthy wild foods is limited. Gardens provide healthy, locally-sourced food while promoting self-reliance and community well-being. Gardening in rural communities in Alaska can often be a challenge due to lack of materials, weather, and short growing seasons. However, one of the benefits of a warming climate is a longer growing season, and communities are finding ways to work together to overcome logistical limitations to and promote gardening.
Tyonek is a small predominately Dena’ina Athabaskan community located on the west shore of Cook Inlet and is the closest rural community to the Municipality of Anchorage. Although only 25 minutes by air from Anchorage, transportation is expensive, and bringing in fresh food, which is often bulky or heavy, is a considerable expense. The Native Village of Tyonek (NVT) through a partnership with the Tyonek Tribal Conservation District (TTCD) turned to gardening to help reduce the cost of access to healthy foods for rural families, inspire youth involvement while introducing healthy eating and lifestyle habits, create jobs, pass on cultural practices, and encourage people all over Alaska to do more for their communities.
In 2012, the TTCD and the NVT began developing an agricultural program called Tyonek Grown aimed at enhancing food security and providing fresh organic vegetables to community members in their remote community. The garden has grown into a 1.5-acre operation with two high tunnels (48 feet by 22 feet), solar powered irrigation and ventilation systems, 15 raised beds, over 2,000 row feet of potatoes and mixed vegetable crops, perennial fruits, and plans for expansion in the coming years. Each year, TTCD and NVT work collaboratively to ensure community goals and needs are being met through the program.
Vegetables harvested from the Tyonek Garden are sold in the community and the surplus produce is sold in Anchorage through markets at the Tyonek Tribal Conservation District office and local restaurants with proceeds directly supporting the Tyonek Grown program. To accomplish Tyonek’s goal of providing healthy food for Elders, the program donates food weekly to the Elder’s Lunch Program, a daily lunch delivery to Tyonek elders managed by the NVT. Tyonek Grown has been incorporated into the Tebughna School curriculum; in 2015, 85 pounds of produce was served in the school snack program as a pilot project.
Youth involvement is an invaluable part of the Tyonek Grown Program. Young people are involved in every step of the process and will be the ones to run the garden in future years. Students plant seeds in the spring; youth interns help maintain the plants throughout the summer; and in the fall the school participates in harvesting, preparing and (most importantly) eating the produce. The success of student involvement has led to discussions of indoor year-round production efforts to fully incorporate Tyonek Grown produce in both the school snack and lunch programs.