Historical Native American Food Insecurity
When Native Americans were forced onto reservations, their traditional food systems and traditions were disrupted. They had to forge a new existence on unfamiliar land, separated from the geography and ecosystems that had been a part of their culture and lifelines for generations. The treaties and acts that followed resulted in even more loss of land and even less access to their traditional hunting and farming sources.
Some of these treaties required the government to supply Native Americans with food, but the food was often poor quality with no concern for nutritional value. The intent was “to prevent starvation rather than provide adequate nutrition, with a focus on ‘low-cost and shelf-stable’ options.”
As a result of all these policies, food insecurity is a very real and prevalent issue in Native American communities today. That is why Running Strong’s food programs, including gardens and mobile markets, are so important in providing access to food for Native American families.
Present-Day Food Insecurity in Native American Communities
Between 2010-2020, the American Indian and Alaskan Native food insecurity was nearly double or triple that of White Americans. And according to a study spearheaded in part by the Food Action and Research Center, the COVID-19 pandemic only made this issue worse. During the pandemic, over half of Native Americans surveyed battled food insecurity.
Recent numbers also show that about 25% of Native Americans live in poverty and almost 70% of Native American children qualify for school lunches. Adding to the problem is the fact that some communities pay more for groceries than those outside reservations. This is according to data from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
With some COVID-19 supplemental benefits ending, there are concerns that Native Americans living on reservations will face new food security threats. This is one reason that activists and leaders want Indigenous communities to have more control over their food supply.
The overwhelming issue of food insecurity, however, is why Running Strong is so dedicated to the success of our food programs which focus on sustainability and self-sufficiency. Learn how we are making a measurable impact.
How We Improve Native American Access to Food With Gardens and Markets
The Medicine Root Gardening Program was made possible by the Newman’s Own Foundation. This program is a 9-month-long course that teaches Native American families on the Pine Ridge Reservation how to successfully plan, plot, and plant a beautiful organic home garden.
These organic home gardens not only feed a family and teach children healthy eating habits, but they also provide an opportunity for seasonal income by selling surplus produce at the local farmer’s market or canning for the winter. The Medicine Root Gardening Program also provides accounting lessons to help these families plan ahead.
The Slim Buttes Agricultural Program (SBAG) is a community-based organic gardening project with the goals of increasing local food production, improving the nutritional quality of food, and promoting self-reliance among the Oglala Lakota.
It provides free soil preparation, seedlings, and other gardening assistance to families across the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Families can sign up to host a garden, and with the support of SBAG, begin growing their own food while also developing an active lifestyle from gardening itself.
Each year, SBAG assists with over 400 gardens on the Pine Ridge Reservation by tilling farming plots, delivering seedlings, distributing seed packages, and installing more than nine miles of irrigation systems.
These gardens produce tomatoes, potatoes, beets, carrots, turnips, beans, melons, peppers, lettuce, spinach, squash, artichokes, and corn – and create sustainability, better nutrition, better health, and more self-sufficiency for the community.
The Pine Ridge Reservation is the second-largest reservation in the U.S. – more than 2.8 million acres, which is larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined. This makes traveling to buy fresh produce a daunting and costly task for many.
Even the local farmers market, operated by our partner the Oyate Teca Project, can prove inaccessible for some Pine Ridge residents. So, we decided that if even a few cannot come to the market, we will bring the market to them.
That’s why, in the summer of 2002, the Medicine Root Farmers Market began operating a mobile market.
Creating Our Mobile Market
A small Chevy bus has been specially outfitted with a generator, refrigeration, freezer, shelving, and air conditioning. It makes regularly-scheduled stops around the reservation so that residents can purchase fresh produce each week.
Communities now have convenient access to high-quality, fresh vegetables and fruits at affordable prices. Sometimes, it also offers pantry items such as pickles and relish. In addition, last summer, Running Strong made distributions of fresh produce bags to families who could not afford to buy them at the markets, even with the relatively modest prices.
Oyate Teca Project director Rose Fraser said that the mobile market will be filled to the brim with a wide variety of vegetables and fruits including tomatoes, peppers (green, red, and jalapeño), onions, beets, carrots, green beans, zucchini, and more.
Participants in the Medicine Root Gardening Project are growing much of this produce and will reap the benefits by selling their surplus through the market operations. Director Fraser estimates this could be as much as $100 each week – a tidy sum they can spend for household and family expenses.
The mobile market is qualified to accept EBT (Electronic Benefits Transfer) cards that allow SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) participants to buy healthy, fresh foods instead of high-fat, high-sodium, high-sugar, highly processed food that is much more readily available on the reservation.
Help Us Improve Access to Food
Last year, Medicine Root Gardening students grew 20,000 pounds of produce through our food security programs, developed 250 home gardens, and provided 30,600 pounds of food to the Cheyenne Indian Reservation.
It is our hope that through our Running Strong programs as well as the generous support of our partners and people like you, these gardens, greenhouses, and markets improve the health, food, and economic outlook of these communities by reducing Native American food insecurity, reducing malnutrition, and increasing better access to better food for these families.
Please help Running Strong continue making a positive impact. See all the ways you can give, and consider donating today.