Ahead of Thanksgiving, Tribes Earn New Grants to Support Local Food and Farming

Moving toward food sovereignty is good for the stomachs and souls of Native Americans.
(Photo: Choctaw Fresh Produce/Facebook)
Nov 20, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

At the edge of the South Dakota Badlands, a few miles short of the geographic center of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, lies Thunder Valley. It’s a physical location—set between Sharps Corner and Rockyford in the northern part of one of the U.S.’s 325 federally recognized reservations—but with the community development projects being undertaken there, including a series of public gardens, it’s also a way of thinking about life as a Lakota.

“The idea is to bring back the community, but we think about it in Native thought and philosophy in how we live. We think about it in a circular way, because that’s how Native people think,” said Nick Hernandez, the food sovereignty and community gardens program manager for the nonprofit Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation. Part of that circular model is the creation what Hernandez calls a regenerative food system for a reservation that currently has 95 percent of its food and basic goods trucked in for its population of 30,000, more than 80 percent of whom are unemployed.

The mission gained steam with assistance from the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, which works to increase food security through its Commmunity Food Project grants program. The $375,000 will help Hernandez construct new greenhouses and start a poultry program. Other project goals include a sustainable agriculture demonstration farm and education center that will include workforce development training.

The grant expands efforts already afoot on the reservation, including a community garden that was started four years ago. Planted with seeds of native squash, corn, and beans, as well as hazelnuts, the crops were maintained and harvested by local teenagers and provided food for 150 families this past summer.

“The garden is one of our education centers for the community,” Hernandez said. “It was created for consumption for the local community but also as an awareness area to show you can grow free, healthy, natural, organic food.”

The aims are both practical and political. Sixteen percent of Native Americans have diabetes, the highest rate of any ethnic group in the U.S, and from 1994 to 2004, Natives ages 15 to 19 experienced a 68 percent increase in the disease. In 2013, the Native American poverty rate was nearly double that of the nation as a whole.

To the south, a $300,000 CFP grant allowed the tribal-owned Choctaw Fresh Produce to construct a greenhouse and a 10-acre fruit orchard on its reservation in Mississippi. The farms were certified organic this year with the help of a USDA value-added producer grant, and the business offers an off-reservation CSA and sells produce at an organic food co-op and the Whole Foods in Jackson. The off-reservation sales subsidize the produce sold on the reservation, and Choctaw Fresh Produce anticipates supplying 25 percent of the fruits and vegetables needed by on-reservation programs that benefit low-income individuals.

Both tribes are interested not only in community health but in the broader goal of food sovereignty.

“Our focus is not about the intent of gardening,” Hernandez said. “Our intent is to create a food system so that we can be food secure to become food sovereign.”

“For us as Native peoples, food is medicine,” he continued. “So we’re not only thinking of food as a sustenance for consumption. We look at food as medicine, as life, as an entity in a cultural and spiritual sense.”

What’s at stake when that medicine—that sense of cultural and spiritual identity, as well as sustenance—is missing can be life itself. Elsewhere on South Dakota’s windswept Pine Ridge Reservation, which is about the size of Connecticut, things don’t look as bright as in Thunder Valley. Earlier this year, after nine suicides by youths ages 12 to 24, the Oglala Sioux tribe president, John Yellow Bird Steele, declared a state of emergency on the reservation. By September, more than 100 youths had attempted suicide, and 19 had succeeded, Voice of America reported. In the spring, John Two Bulls, a pastor who works with youths on the reservation, was tipped off to a group suicide planned outside the town of Pine Ridge. He arrived in a wooded area to see ropes hanging from a row of tree branches. He gathered with the teenagers who were there.

“I counseled them, prayed with them, talked with them,” he told The New York Times. Their lives at home were abusive, they told him, and there was, as Two Bulls said, “no food.”