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Alaskan nursing home residents are fighting for the right to eat seal blubber

© Lawrie Cate © Lawrie Cate

By Madison Roberts

Imagine eating a food for your entire life, and then being 70 years old and being told you can’t anymore. That’s the dilemma residents in Alaskan nursing homes are facing, according to a report from Slate.

Up until a few year ago, the comfort foods many residents in the Alaskan Arctic grew up eating—seal blubber, wild tundra berries and caribou—were restricted from being served in nursing homes, since they weren't regulated by the USDA. Instead of their traditional animal-fat and meat-based diets, Native Alaskans in assisted living facilities had to subsist in things like bananas, leafy greens, and pasta.

“You can’t get an old-timer Eskimo and just switch them over to white [people’s] food. Such a big change don’t agree with ’em,” May Bernhardt, an 87-year-old Inupiat Eskimo who is a nursing home resident, told Slate.

According to Slate, because selling wild game is illegal, nursing homes cannot receive federal reimbursements for these meals.

For years, residents and employees at the nursing home have been fighting for legislation that recognizes the food of their culture as traditional food, and although they’ve been making progress, Slate reports, they still have a long way to go.

In 2014, the Senate passed a law that considers foods from the Inupiat Eskimo culture as “traditional,” meaning they can be served in government-regulated facilities. More than a year later, the first meals were rolled out in the nursing homes, including a traditional Alaskan dish, caribou soup. However, certain delicacies like seal oil still remain banned due to the potential of botulism.

Last year, residents formed a Seal Oil Task Force to push for its inclusion on nursing home menus.


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