Tundra to Table cooking series and mini-magazines celebrate superfoods of the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta

Jessica Lewis-Nicori of Chefornak is the host on the Tundra-to-Table cooking video series. In the videos she demonstrates how to make tasty dishes using tundra plants and WIC foods. Photo by Sarah Betcher at Farthest North Films

by Jennifer Nu

The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, Division of Public Assistance, Family Nutrition Programs has just released a new cooking series called Tundra-to-Table and a collection of culturally-relevant mini-magazines for Yup’ik audiences.

These materials highlight the many benefits of edible local plants and other wild Alaska foods in an innovative effort to increase intake of healthy foods and optimize health by connecting people with their local food system.

The Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) provided funding for the project.

Tundra-to-Table is a series of five cooking videos hosted by Jessica Lewis-Nicori, a Yup’ik mother of three from Chefornak, Alaska. Lewis-Nicori and her kids demonstrate quick, tasty recipes that combine tundra plants with foods commonly found in the Women, Infants, and Childrens (WIC) food package.

The WIC program is one of six federally-funded food assistance programs administered by the state to assist income-eligible individuals and families with meeting their food needs.

The videos are posted on YouTube and include a recipe for traditional akutaq. Also known as Eskimo ice cream, this creamy concoction is made with seal oil, sourdock, and salmonberries from the tundra. Other videos include overnight oatmeal using local berries, a salad using sourdock and store vegetables, and fried rice that uses fireweed and leftover halibut.

“I’m excited to promote our foods, especially gathering and preparing tundra greens that are readily available every summer,” said Jessica Lewis-Nicori, in a recent interview. “It’s incredible that 1 cup of sourdock has the same amount of vitamin A as 5 ½ carrots!”

Lewis-Nicori also demonstrates how traditional food activities strengthen the relationships between parents and children. In the videos, her children and niece accompany her gathering wild plants on the tundra. In the kitchen, her son helps her cut up ingredients.

“He loves to help out in the kitchen with his butter knife!” she laughed. “I remember gathering greens and doing things with my grandma, and it was a good bonding experience.”

Designing nutrition education materials tailored for Yup’ik communities follows recommendations from a 2014 needs assessment for SNAP education, conducted by Andrea Bersamin, associate professor at the Center for Alaska Native Health Research at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

“The assessment found that there was a lack of materials tailored to the unique cultural and geographical context of Alaska Native communities, especially in the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta region,” she noted. “The videos and mini-magazines are part of an effort to address that need, and to promote the incredibly healthy foods that come from the natural environment all around these communities.”

In addition to the videos, a series of seven mini-magazines feature edible plants and berries that can be found in the YK Delta and in other regions of Alaska: wild rhubarb, salmonberries, blueberries, sourdock, cranberries, fiddlehead, and fireweed.

Bersamin and her team spoke with people in communities to integrate traditional knowledge into the mini-magazines. Each one includes recipes, health facts, and information on identification and gathering these “tundra superfoods.” The mini-magazines also include tips for families with children and a games section for kids.

Jennifer Johnson is the WIC nutrition coordinator for the state of Alaska who assisted with the project to select the plants featured in the mini-magazines. “These local foods are much fresher than produce from the store and retain more nutrients than store foods that travel for three weeks or more after it’s picked,” she explained.

The materials are part of a statewide social media campaign on fruits and vegetables with the theme of “gather, garden, and grocery.”

“Part of the campaign is to promote traditional and local foods as a primary source of foods. These can be from a local garden, farmer’s market, or out in the wilderness,” added Kathleen Wayne, Family Nutrition Programs manager at the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. “The message is for all Alaskans to look local first. Then, as needed, they can utilize supplemental nutrition programs to make their dollars go farther.”

The videos and the mini-magazines also address community concerns that many young people in the YK Delta are eating more store foods and less traditional foods than generations before them.

Lewis-Nicori loves Yup’ik foods, especially uquq, or seal oil, and she wants her children to appreciate these foods as they get older.

“I am hoping people who watch the videos can relate to me and connect to the message that our Yup’ik foods are delicious,” she said. “Maybe if they see a Yup’ik person on a cooking video, they will feel validated and want to learn about preparing and eating our foods.”

The videos show how to make healthy dishes using ingredients that are readily available in the village, both from the tundra and the store.

“To make good food, you don’t need a professional chef, fancy recipes, or specialty ingredients that people have access to in Anchorage,” said Lewis-Nicori. “We can promote our own superfoods right out on the tundra along with our fish and our game.”

Bersamin and Lewis-Nicori worked with Alaskan filmmaker Sarah Betcher, of Farthest North Films, to develop kid-friendly recipes for the videos.

The tundra plant mini-magazines include information on identification and collecting wild plants. Lewis-Nicori hopes that these will help more people be active on the land. She is quick to remind people that it is important to know the difference between edible and poisonous plants.

“If you’re unsure, do not eat it. Make sure to ask someone who knows.” The mini-magazines are a jumping off point to encourage people-to-people interactions that create the best learning experiences.

The Yup’ik-focused educational materials are the first in a series that Johnson and Wayne hope will expand to include a variety of traditional foods and traditional food knowledge from all throughout the state.

“Nutrition and food security are not just about the nutrients that you take in or the food that is eaten,” said Wayne. “It’s also about culture, taking care of the natural environment, sharing, and ensuring that everyone in that community has access to healthful food.”


The Tundra-to-Table YouTube videos and Tundra Plant mini-magazines can be accessed through the State of Alaska’s webpage under “Nutrition Resources” at: http://dhss.alaska.gov/dpa/Pages/nutri/default.aspx

Jennifer Nu is a freelance writer in Alaska who writes on topics of food, wellness, environment, and social innovation.