Expanding Partnerships to Strengthen Tribal Food Sovereignty

Joey Hentzler
September 21, 2022

Since 2017, MAZON’s Emerging Advocacy Fund has built critical capacity for anti-hunger advocacy in 15 states and Puerto Rico — places where capacity was previously limited or did not exist. MAZON’s theory of change is simple: by putting advocates on the ground and equipping them to advance policy change, we can achieve food justice in our country’s most food insecure communities. 

This July, MAZON started 14 new grantee partnerships in Alaska, Florida, Georgia, and Hawai’i. In many ways, advocates in these states face problems that are very familiar to others across MAZON’s network: structural racism and economic inequality. But these new partnerships also face unique challenges — in particular, in Alaska and Hawai’i, many of the biggest challenges and opportunities to food security are unlike those in other states given the distinct historical and ongoing consequences of settler colonialism and due to the extreme geographic isolation of their local food systems. 

With MAZON’s partnership grants, the anti-hunger advocacy resources available in these two states will more than double.

Several of MAZON’s new partnerships will center Indigenous food sovereignty as a key element in their work to advance food security for all. MAZON is proud of our longtime support of food security and food sovereignty work with Native Americans and Tribes in the “Lower 48.” This includes longstanding partnerships with the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative, Intertribal Agriculture Coalition, the Native Food and Nutrition Resource Alliance, and the Native Farm Bill Coalition. We also take pride in the fact that MAZON was the first non-Native ally member of the Native Farm Bill Coalition, which defines Indigenous food sovereignty as the “right to healthy and culturally-appropriate food and Tribal authority to define food and agriculture systems.” Now, MAZON’s newest partners in Alaska and Hawai’i are set to advance these rights in their communities.


Valerie Nurr’araaluk Davidson, President & CEO of the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, said of our new partnership that “for thousands of years, Alaska Native people have harvested traditional Indigenous foods critical to the health, wellness and cultures of Alaska Native people. We appreciate MAZON’s support which allows us to expand our food sovereignty efforts, reclaim our Indigenous food systems and ways of knowing, and preserve these important histories for future healthier generations.”

An inescapable truth is the existence of “two Alaskas.” The distinctions between urban and rural, Alaska Native and non-Native, are paramount to understanding barriers to food security. For instance, in rural Alaska, grocery stores are few and far between. Roughly 70% of rural Alaska Native villages are not connected to a road. Fresh produce is rare and must be flown or shipped by boat to hundreds of isolated communities. Hunting and fishing are crucial to sustaining a family, yet a common joke in Alaska warns would-be hunters to “bring your guide and a lawyer on your trek.” Complex state, federal, and Tribal land management regimes threaten Alaska Natives’ right to subsist, which is both culturally and nutritionally key to life in the villages. 

The vast majority of Alaska Natives — 160,000,nearly 25% of the state’s population — rely on subsistence hunting, fishing, and gathering for food . The average harvest of subsistence resources in pounds per person in rural Alaska is estimated at 544 pounds (equivalent to 50% of the average daily caloric requirement). The economic significance of this harvest is estimated at between $98 and $164 million (which equates to about $2,000-$3,000 per person or nearly $12,000 for a family of four). While that may not seem like a lot, Alaska Natives have the highest poverty rates in the country, with many Native census blocks estimating poverty rates in excess of 35%. Regrettably, COVID-19 exacerbated the situation. 

Subsistence is critical to meet the economic realities of rural Alaska and, on average, it contributes even more to household food security than the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps). Many Alaska Native communities do not have a grocery store, and their geographic isolation makes access to and use of SNAP at stores infeasible. For those Alaskans who live in more urban places, the average SNAP benefit per person is $181 per month. Even though this is higher than the national average, these SNAP allotments diminish quickly due to significantly higher food costs. Likewise, federal child nutrition programs like after school and summer meals are not economical in rural communities. 

Another one of MAZON’s new partners, the Alaska Federation of Natives, is a leader in the area of Indigenous subsistence rights. “Alaska Natives hunt, fish, and gather year-round to survive,” said Julie Kitka, President of the Alaska Federation of Natives. “Without the subsistence harvest, our 200 rural Tribal communities would become food insecure overnight. MAZON’S grant is going to preserve our peoples’ tomorrows.”


Nearly 21% — one in five — of Native Hawai’ian and Other Pacific Islander (NHOPI) adults are food insecure, compared to 7.7% of white people in Hawai’i. These disparities have only worsened during COVID-19 due to the over-representation of NHOPI workers in the low-wage tourism and retail industries. 

Yet, even grouping Native Hawai’ian and Pacific Islanders into a single demographic obscures the unique needs and barriers both groups face. Furthermore, while the Hawai’i state government uses these poverty rates and other health disparities to garner federal funding, there is often a failure to equitably disburse those funds. Native Hawai’ian issues are set apart from other struggles for Indigenous rights and further complicated due to their lack of sovereign status compared to American Indian and Alaska Native Tribes, who have federal recognition. 

Hawai’i has the second highest rate of childhood food insecurity in the nation, with primary obstacles being the exorbitant cost of food on the islands and the extremely inadequate level of federal funding for Child Nutrition Programs. In 2020, Hawai’i served zero federally-reimbursed after school meals , which is a jaw-dropping statistic and a problem advocates have raised for years. Despite a higher meal reimbursement rate than the “Lower 48,” out-of-school meal programs remain almost entirely unviable in both Hawai’i and Alaska. Indeed, when adjusting for average meal cost, the federal support for Hawai’i is less than many other states. 

MAZON’s grantee partners in Hawai’i are launching new initiatives to build a more just, culturally appropriate food system for all residents of Hawai’i. Harnessing federal nutrition assistance programs to achieve these goals will be key for their success. They are also trying to  improve how SNAP reaches older Hawai’ians by pursuing a package of policy options known as the “Elderly Simplified Application Project” . Nationally, we know 1 in 3 eligible seniors do not receive food assistance. And in Hawai’i, the food insecurity rate is rising among older residents. In addition, MAZON’s expertise on military hunger will strengthen our partnerships in Hawaii as 11% of the population is connected to the United States Armed Forces.

“MAZON’s investment in Hawaiʻi will be transformational for our state,” said Gavin Thornton, Executive Director, Hawaiʻi Appleseed Center for Law & Economic Justice. “Their support will enable us to pursue critical and effective state and federal policy changes to ensure all of Hawaiʻi’s residents have access to healthy and nutritious food.”


Before U.S. colonization, the Indigenous population on the Hawai’ian Islands sustained itself with its own local food system. Today, 90% of the food is imported. Similarly in Alaska, upwards of 95% of food today comes from producers outside the state. At any given time, food provisions in these states are only ever enough to provide for two to three weeks of demand. This extraordinary scale of food insecurity at the state-level is exacerbated by decades of suppressed local food economies and the marginalization of Native food ways and producers.

With these unique realities in mind, MAZON embarks on these new partnerships with hope and a commitment to strengthen access to traditional food and protection of subsistence rights.