Healthy Food Access in Indian Country

Over the past few months, we’ve shared findings from the Minnesota Food Charter statewide public input process, focusing on food equity issues in communities, schools, and healthcare settings on our Third Thursday webinars. This month, we’ll explore the challenges and solutions for healthy food access in Native communities. We’ll focus on how tribally-led initiatives and inter-tribal collaboration could work to build tribal sovereignty and traditional food systems, and how these efforts can promote health and wellness in communities that are disproportionately affected by poverty and diet-related illnesses.

Native Food Systems and the Food Charter

A Healthy History

For thousands of years, Native communities have had a unique connection to food indigenous to Minnesota, including game animals, wild rice, and fish. This traditional food system is closely aligned with tribal spiritual and cultural traditions. The plants and animals consumed by tribal communities sustained community health and well-being for generations. Structural racism, including forced relocation and assimilation policies, seizure of Native lands, boarding school policies, federal food programs targeting Native nations, and other disruptions, have altered tribal peoples’ relationships with the land and the food that grows there.

A Problematic Present

Challenges to healthy food access are a daily reality for tribal communities. Native populations are disproportionately affected by diet-related and chronic illness, and over 30 percent of Minnesota’s Native American residents live in poverty. Furthermore, loss of land, language, and tradition have prevented tribal communities from fully practicing traditional foodways. In many Native communities, access to healthy food – at organizations, programs, and stores – is difficult. Distance, cost, and healthfulness of food all inhibit tribal members’ access to healthy food.

A Hopeful Future

Native-led efforts are well underway in many communities to restore healthy, culturally important food systems, which will help ensure these nations’ health and vibrancy for generations to come. There is a genuine interest in Native communities to use and improve traditional food systems—as well as employ new ideas—to promote community health.

What did we hear?

Native people have played an instrumental role in the feedback process for the Food Charter, including hosting and attending events and serving in leadership roles. Throughout the feedback process, we garnered significant input from tribal communities through numerous input events, listening sessions, key informant interviews, and background research. This effort was guided by Native leadership and tribally-serving organizations, and included experiential learning field trips, interviews focused on food security and sovereignty with tribal food systems advocates, and elder care and traditional foods.

Participants in these discussions acknowledged that the barriers to access that Native people face are varied and unique; a single parent in Minneapolis faces different obstacles to healthy food access than one who may live in a reservation community. To address these important issues, participants warned against a state government-led “policy” and highlighted the need for strong traditional leadership within Native communities.

According to Native stakeholders participating in the input process, the Food Charter will need to effectively address the following questions to best meet the healthy food access needs of tribal communities:

  • How can we draw upon the knowledge and experience of older tribal members to help restore and improve upon traditional Native food systems?
  • What role can cooperatives play in building infrastructure for and reducing barriers to Native-led agriculture and harvesting?
  • How can tribal communities work with assistance programs like SNAP while helping to ensure that traditional Native food is accessible throughout the state?
  • How can tribal leaders work together and with the state government to promote healthy eating and improve healthy food access within Native communities?

Participants offered numerous suggestions to improve access to healthy food for Native communities. Many suggestions revolved around community efforts—connecting knowledgeable elders to interested youth, creating culture camps to help increase knowledge of traditional food systems, using cooperatives to provide land and necessary equipment to more community members, and creating intentional community spaces for food and health education. Participants felt that strong leadership and collaboration could help drive progress within Native communities.

Third Thursday Webinar: For Our Healthy Future: Healthy Food Access in Tribal Communities

The Minnesota Food Charter webinar this month, For Our Healthy Future: Healthy Food Access in Tribal Communities, will expand on these ideas by sharing findings from Indian Country. Presented by Food Charter Steering Committee member and Food Charter Event Host, Simone Senogles, we’ll explore together the challenges and solutions for healthy food systems in Native communities.

This webinar will share what food access looks like for Native community members and focus on Native-led initiatives to improve access and reconnect with traditional food systems. We’ll take a look at specific issues facing Native communities—like the regulatory barriers facing schools that want to serve traditional Native dishes like wild rice and venison—while also addressing the large-scale issues that are affecting the community as a whole.

Join us for this important webinar – “For Our Healthy Future: Healthy Food Access in Tribal Communities” will take place at 11:00 a.m. on Thursday, May 15.