Courtesy American Heart Association
The Fertile Ground Conference Youth Track group.

Fertile Ground II: Food and Health in Indian Country

Tanya H. Lee

When funders with open minds meet with “moccasins on the ground” in healthcare and nutrition advocacy, bold ideas and revolutionary strategies can result.

That’s what happened in early May in Minneapolis, when the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community and the American Heart Association convened nearly 200 American Indian tribal leaders, community organizers and national philanthropic organizations to talk about food and health in Indian country.

The goal of Fertile Ground II: Growing the Seeds of Native American Health was to advance work on federal, state and tribal policies relating to nutrition, food access and health outcomes within American Indian and Alaska Native communities, said Crystal Echohawk, Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma, president and CEO of Echohawk Consulting.

“Indian country is a good investment at this point,” said Judith LeBlanc, director of Native Organizers Alliance. “You have a large expertise in the community, a lot of people who have been trained in food science and in nonprofit administration. It’s the right time now to invest in Indian country because there is the possibility of developing more tribal-led and Indian-led nutrition programs and supporting Native food production in ranching and agriculture.”

Fertile Ground attendees. (Courtesy American Heart Association)

Opportunities lurk in hard-won successes that could be replicated. The Navajo Nation Tribal Council passed the country’s first so-called “junk food tax” back in 2013. The two-part initiative—eliminating the 5 percent tribal tax on healthy foods and adding an additional tax for unhealthy foods—was vetoed by then Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly.

Organizers went back to the council and won enough votes to override the veto. Today both programs are in effect, all the more remarkable, said Denisa Livingston, Navajo, community health advocate for the Diné Community Advocacy Alliance, because this was an all-volunteer effort begun in 2011. After years of discussions and negotiations, the Navajo Nation Council announced June 13 that it had approved the Healthy Diné Community Wellness Development Project Guideline and Distribution Policy. The legislation will allow for the distribution of the money raised through the 2 percent surtax on unhealthy foods sold on the reservation out to the chapters to support locally-directed wellness programs.

“Local” is key here. Native-defined problems, Native-advised funding, and Native-led solutions are usually going to be far more effective than top-down projects initiated outside of Indian country, said LeBlanc, Caddo Tribe of Oklahoma.

The American Indian Cancer Foundation, for example, pioneered a program with the Lower Brule Tribe to address smoking. “The organization surveyed the community to find out what they thought were the most burning health issues. One was cancer and smoking. There’s a difference between use of sacred tobacco in our religious ceremonies and the abuse of tobacco, which has led to high cancer rates among American Indians,” LeBlanc said.

The foundation “has spent the last two years working—with the sanction of tribal government—with volunteers, some from tribal service agencies, some community activists, who got the tribal government to pass new policies around smoking. Then the tribal government began to support work of the group and they have been able to raise over $300K to proceed with an education program in the schools and to develop smoking cessation programs.

“Community engagement with volunteer-driven activity led to policy change,” LeBlanc said.

Fertile Ground attendees try the healthy snacks available. (Courtesy American Heart Association)

Local is also the direction that the federal Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR) needs to go, even though many of the policy changes that are needed to improve the program will have to be passed by Congress, said Janie Simms Hipp, director of the University of Arkansas School of Law’s Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative.

The program serves some 100,000 people a month (an increase of 20 percent over the past three years) from 276 tribes, according to Hipp. The federal government purchases food and distributes it to Native people, many of whom live in extremely remote locations. “This program could be managed… so it gets to the ultimate consumer in a better way,” Hipp said.

One way to decentralize the program would be for Congress to give Indian tribes the authority to contract with the federal government. “It would be more efficient, more effective if the distribution programs were managed locally by tribes or a consortia of tribes,” Hipps said.

One place where this need for local control has become obvious is in Alaska. Ten Alaska villages have asked to be served by the FDPIR program but have been denied. One reason is that a larger allocation of funding would be needed if these villages are to be served without taking away from service currently offered to the 276 tribes already participating. But another is the impossible logistics of delivering food to remote Alaska villages using the existing USDA distribution infrastructure.

Panelists Jodi Gillette, Policy Advisor and Government Relations, Sonosky, Chambers, Enderson & Perry LLP; Jefferson Keel, Lieutenant Governor, Chickasaw Nation; and Mia Hubbard, Vice President of Programs, MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger. (Courtesy American Heart Association)

That a policy overhaul for this program is critical is supported by figures in the recently-released “Study of the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR) Final Report.” For example, “the monthly income of 12 percent of the households that receive this food is $0. This is their only food…. You’re talking about the most vulnerable people in Indian country,” Hipp said. In fact, the report states that the FDPIR is the sole or primary source of food for 38 percent of households participating in the program.

Getting traditional foods into the program—the foods that would be better suited to the physiology of the people consuming it and therefore healthier for them, said Hipp—has been immensely challenging. “In the last farm bill Congress weighed in and said traditional foods should be part of these programs and that up to 50 percent [of the food purchased by the federal government] could be from local Native producers, but the question is how do you actually pull that off?”

About a year ago Native-owned KivaSun was approved to provide bison for the program and USDA has just sent out a solicitation for wild rice. “But if the agency purchases food in a national way, then you’re out of sync with the capacity of the [Native] producers,” who, for example, may not be able to time their harvest and arrange transportation to meet an inflexible delivery date specified on a contract, Hipp pointed out.

A solution, she said, might be “to move from a national warehouse system to a regional warehouse system with maybe even subregions. That would allow you to actually have more local, traditional foods but also more local, healthier foods that don’t have perishability problems because you’re moving them around from location to location.” And more local Native-grown food would boost local economies and provide a basis for sustainable tribal economic development, she said.

Fixing FDPIR to bring the program into this century is going to be a massive undertaking, one that will require bold ideas and the funding to implement them.

An example of the bold ideas generated by the working groups at the Fertile Ground II conference convened by the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community and the American Heart Association to strategize ways to improve access to healthy foods and combat chronic illnesses in Indian country. (Courtesy American Heart Association)

This conference was one step in that process. The Kellogg Foundation has committed $50,000 to the preparation of a final report to help disseminate the ideas and strategies generated by Fertile Ground II. At the same time the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community and the American Heart Association have announced that they will partner to create a six-figure policy innovation grant fund, probably early in the fall, and they will seek other partners to join the effort.

“We didn’t come in with a playbook,” said Aaron Doeppers, American Heart Association Manager for State and Local Obesity Initiatives. “We came in to learn and facilitate. This effort needs a lot of follow-up work and we’re going to be a part of that.”

Lori Watso, chair of the SMSC’s Seeds of Native Health philanthropic campaign to improve Native nutrition, said in a statement, “The ideas we discussed at Fertile Ground II have a real opportunity to make change throughout Native Country, and I am so encouraged by this.”

RELATED: Culture Is Prevention: Key ‘Fertile Ground’ Roundtable Discussion

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