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From cooking classes to new gardens and orchards, American Indian communities are growing new healthy food initiatives across Minnesota.

This summer, the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe in northern Minnesota launched a mobile teaching kitchen to pass on recipes and skills for making nutritious meals. In the central region, the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe is expanding community gardens, harvesting everything from corn to cantaloupe.

And in southern Minnesota, the Lower Sioux Indian Community has swapped out fried chicken and mashed potatoes for bison and wild rice at community events, replaced vending machines’ soda with water and fruit juice and incentivized vendors at powwows to offer more fruits and vegetables.

“It’s slow work, but we’re seeing this growing momentum,” said Diane Wilson, executive director of Dream of Wild Health, a nonprofit that has a 10-acre organic farm in Hugo where Indian teens are taught about agriculture and nutrition. “I hope it’s a sign of a really significant change in the relationship with our food.”

For Minnesota’s nearly 60,000 American Indians, the healthy food push stems from an urgent health crisis with high diabetes and obesity rates.

The 11 tribes in the state aren’t just increasing healthy living initiatives but are specifically promoting healthy indigenous foods and food sovereignty — part of wider efforts to revive Indian traditions and culture, from traditional tobacco and old-style lacrosse (the “Creator’s game”) to wild rice fields and the Dakota and Ojibwe language.

“We see it as a whole movement, part of cultural recovery,” Wilson said. “These new movements are really a return to old ways.”

Each year, the Minnesota Department of Health funds $1 million in tribal obesity reduction efforts. And for the third year, Minnesota this fall will host a national conference on native nutrition — the only one of its kind in the country.

“There’s so much exciting work happening across the state,” said Crystal Echo Hawk, a partner in the Seeds of Native Health campaign.

That $10 million campaign, launched three years ago by the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, is the largest coordinated philanthropic effort in the country focused on improving American Indian nutrition, in this case by increasing academic research and providing community grants.

The Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community also funded $300,000 of the Minnesota Super Bowl Host Committee Legacy Fund’s “52 Weeks of Giving” program, which doled out grants statewide, including to every one of the state’s 11 tribes for active living and healthy food efforts before the Super Bowl last February.

“Nutrition is really at the root cause of health disparities,” Echo Hawk said.

Changing social norms

Diets worsened when Indians were forced to live on reservations and government commodities replaced nutrient-rich, natural foods they were used to eating.

Now, communities are trying to reverse a decadeslong shift toward eating processed foods and trying to get back to living off the land through local fruit and vegetables, especially in areas considered “food deserts” — low-income areas with limited access to grocery stores.

“The social norm on the reservation is everything in a box is easier,” said John Houle, Mille Lacs’ coordinator of emergency services including the food shelf and food distribution program. “They don’t have a lot of money to buy fresh produce. It’s easier to buy a can of carrots.”

‘Good food’

But the band is trying to change that with Mino-Miijim, which means “good food,” starting a community garden program and greenhouse. This year Houle said they expanded the garden from two small plots to five, growing broccoli, corn, beans, watermelon and other produce. They’ve taken over more than 200 apple trees, and thanks to a $100,000 Super Bowl Host Committee Legacy Fund grant, the band bought a tractor and trailer to process and distribute the food. Eventually, he added, they want to raise their own chickens and cows.

Community gardens have sprouted up everywhere from the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa to the Prairie Island Indian Community, which serves up its own vegetables and buffalo meat from its herd at community events and has even made traditional tea from herbs in its medicinal garden.

Food truck boosts access

At the White Earth reservation, a food truck this year started delivering and selling traditional foods. In Granite Falls, the Upper Sioux Community started a new initiative called Zani Woyute that includes teaching children how to cook and garden. And in Hugo, the Dream of Wild Health’s farm now has a new kitchen for cooking classes thanks to a $50,000 Super Bowl Legacy grant, replacing an old kitchen that lacked hot water.

Breaking down barriers

The healthy food movement still faces some skeptics.

“When you say ‘healthy food,’ people just cringe ... because they assume it’s not going to be good,” Lower Sioux registered dietitian Stacy Hammer said. But, she added, with rising obesity and diabetes rates, everyone is affected. “If we don’t do something now, it’s just going to get worse.”

In Morton, the Lower Sioux opened a health clinic in 2016 and has shifted from diabetes treatment to prevention through education efforts like a diabetes bingo for elders. Community leaders hope to one day add indigenous food such as bison jerky to vending machines and build a commercial teaching kitchen.

In northern Minnesota, the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe has been building education efforts for years such as wild rice and maple syrup camps along with planting orchards and opening a diabetes clinic, but some tribal members didn’t have transportation to get there.

Now, thanks to a $100,000 Super Bowl grant, the community bought a 24-foot trailer and opened a mobile teaching kitchen, bringing education directly to the people. From one kid who hadn’t heard of a fish taco to an adult who didn’t know that green peppers could be eaten raw, the free classes are making a difference, nutritionist Amanda Shongo said.

“We’re not changing behaviors,” she said. “People are making their own choices; we’re just providing the resource.”

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141