Due to a variety of issues including inadequate funding, many of the USDA’s Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR) outlets cannot provide nutrition education to their local communities or to the families who receive food packages, even though such education could go a long way toward improving health on the reservation while offering valuable information on different ways to prepare and serve the various foods. (FDPIR is available to Indian Tribal Organizations – ITOs – and state agencies, with about 276 tribes receiving benefits through 100 ITOs and five state agencies, according to the FDPIR website.)
Because of this situation, the “Nutrition Education for Native American Communities” project was created under First Nations Development Institute’s Native Agriculture and Food Systems Initiative. The project was generously underwritten by the Walmart Foundation.
Over the past nine months, 21 tribes across 12 states have designed, launched or expanded culturally- and community-based nutrition education projects that encouraged individuals and families to improve their nutrition and practice healthy habits, plus it has generally broadened much-needed access to nutrition education in Indian Country.
Individually, the “Nutrition Education for Native American Communities” projects determined what they were going to focus on and how to make their projects culturally specific, whether it be nutrition workshops, cooking classes/food demonstrations, healthy recipe development, creation and dissemination of educational materials, and more. The FDPIR programs at the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma and the Spirit Lake Tribe in North Dakota are highlighted here as excellent examples of creative and culturally-focused nutrition education programs engaging with their tribal communities.
Seminole Nation of Oklahoma
The Seminole Nation of Oklahoma is located in south-central Oklahoma, approximately 45 miles east of Oklahoma City, and it includes most of Seminole County, according to the tribe’s website. In other words the Seminole Nation is vast – and the majority of its tribal members are spread out across the county and the state. This might have proved a challenge for some, but Tod Robertson, the Seminole Nation Food and Nutrition Services Director, and his staff saw it as an opportunity to bring tribal members together in various settings.
The Seminole Nation has a transit service that is free for tribal members and provides transportation to and from tribal programs, which are spread out across 633 square miles. The food demonstrations were held at various locations to give tribal members the opportunity to attend and experience the many different cooking options.
The Wellness Center at the Mikasuki Mission (Chief’s House) was used to show how to cook on an outdoor, open flame such as those found at traditional ceremonial grounds or powwows. Outdoor grilling over charcoal on picnic and commercial grills was shown because the tribal housing authority has grills for the community to access. The tribe’s historic Grisso Mansion was used as well and drew large crowds. For one event, 56 people registered and, with the drop-in attendees, the number rose to 65. Word spread quickly across the community about all the good cooking that was happening, or perhaps it was the aroma of the delicious food.
Show Me the Salmon
“The recipes used some of the new traditional foods such as salmon, wild rice, blue corn and bison, which are available in the new FDPIR traditional foods basket. Salmon was cooked in a cast-iron skillet over an open flame, over a charcoal grill, and on the stove top. The participants were excited to get those, but they wanted to know how to cook them, very quickly. In the cooking demos for one day it was not on the agenda, but the cook loves to cook salmon filets, and everyone was excited about them, so we had to send for the salmon filets. We cooked those, too, because we knew we had a captive audience,” said Robertson.
The approach of cooking in three different types of settings encouraged attendance and left people asking when the next demonstration was going to be held. The participation crossed generations and at some outdoor events there were three generations of families in attendance – learning together.
“Elders were out there looking for things to do and it was an enjoyable event for them. It gave them the opportunity to get out. They prepared dishes. They were interested. It was great to let them share with each other. It brought out a number of different people, young people, too. We always had people interacting and sharing their stories,” said Robertson.
While the cooking and food drew the people, it was what they were cooking with that stirred up the storytelling and memories that go along with cooking in a communal setting.
“The cast-iron skillet – when they would see it – it would remind them of the many times they used it previously. Participants would say ‘I’ve got one of those at home’ and it brought back memories of what was cooked, and that helped us to say you’ve eaten cooked food before,” said Robertson.
Easier to “Eat Unhealthy”
One challenge that Robertson and his team worked on with the participants was how to fit cooking into their day, and the benefits of making time to cook healthy food versus the alternative.
“The participants remarked how easy it is to eat unhealthy. They didn’t consider that they have time to cook. The demonstrations showed that if you don’t have much time, well here’s how you can prepare a nutritious meal to eat later. Unfortunately the convenience of store fried foods and fast foods have taken the role of the cook. We’re showing them that they do have time with the use of a slow cooker.”
The demonstrations also gave the participants the opportunity to try unfamiliar foods available to them in their FDPIR food baskets. No longer the “commods” or “commodity food” their great-grandparents or grandparents grew up on, the program now offers healthier food staples along with fresh fruits, vegetables, dairy, meats, beans and much more.
“We definitely appreciate First Nations for obtaining the funding from the Walmart Foundation. It was great because it wasn’t federal dollars. It gave us the freedom to be creative,” said Robertson.
Sharing Knowledge of Food
Another goal of the Seminole Nation’s program was to share the recipes and cooking demos with not only their tribal members in person, but to go virtual with the information with 12 videos, which will be posted to the Seminole Nation website and its official Facebook page, according to Robertson.
“You see everybody walking and sitting around and they have their phones, so if we do it (the demonstrations) just for people who are physically able to participate, then we’ve left out the rest of the world. With social media there is no limit to the access.”
Spirit Lake Tribe
Mary Greene Trottier grew up having family meals around the dinner table. She knows how important that is to keeping connected to family and community.
“The concept of sitting at the table as a family has diminished. Many are connected to their phones and you lose that family bond. Often times, young people think having a family meal means eating out of a bag while driving down the road.”
As the Spirit Lake Tribe Food Distribution Program Director and a grandmother, Greene Trottier thinks about the young ones in her tribal community and wants better health and nutrition for them and their families.
“The uniqueness about FDPIR is that participants have to see us to receive their food – see us face to face – and that provides us with an opportunity to provide educational materials and answer questions,” she said, noting that while the program provides a much-needed service to the community, there previously “was nothing specific as far as nutrition education to food distribution. Prior to this grant, the last nutrition person from North Dakota State University Extension Service was only available four hours a week.”
However, with funding from the FDPIR nutrition education grant, Elisha Poulsen was hired as a Nutrition Educator full time for the Spirit Lake Food Distribution Program. Together, Greene Trottier and Poulsen collaborated and applied for the “Nutrition Education for Native American Communities” grant from First Nations. Poulsen, who has her bachelor’s degree in nursing, and is a tribal member, says Greene Trottier’s vision for the community is motivating, and that once the project was funded, they had to work fast to accomplish their goals.
Passport to Better Health
Taking a cue from her grandson, who enjoys reading books about his favorite show – Little Einsteins, who go on missions to learn about new things – Greene Trottier thought why not create “a journey to better health using a passport so they can share create a diary to track their changes on their own personal journey.”
The Nutrition Passport program created by the Spirit Lake Food Distribution Program and the North Dakota State University Extension Service focuses on the five food groups of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, protein, and dairy. There is a section where participants can list their goals for each food group, and something new they learned in the nutrition classes and from the cooking demonstrations. The last section of the passport features “Fun with Family Meals” to help participants focus on eating together and enjoying healthy nutritious meals they can cook themselves.
“With the passport and the adults, we asked questions like: ‘How would they like to change their eating habits in the food group? How has the lesson impacted you?’ We asked them to think about and reflect on it, their food journey. Each lesson prepares them, and there are four different recipes included in the lesson,” said Greene Trottier. The passport was available for participants to take home to remind them of what they were learning in the nutrition classes. The demonstrations incorporated the FDPIR foods available to them.
Traditional Foods and Storytelling
“Bison, salmon, wild rice recipes, blue corn meal, are all offered in the new FDPIR traditional foods basket. The participants liked bison/buffalo, which are predominant to where we are. Throughout the nutrition education we try to showcase different food that are not familiar to the area, too. We’re close to Minnesota, so the wild rice chicken soup is good for those cold winter days. The salmon was not familiar to our area, so we served up that recipe, too,” said Greene Trottier.
As the nutrition educator, Poulsen said the passport was key to helping participants see how much of each food group they may or may not have been eating and the serving size for their age group. While healthier eating was the goal, making sure the information and recipes also made a cultural connection was incorporated throughout in the form of storytelling.
“Each lesson has different recipes and we try to relate them back to our culture and the story behind it. We talked about gathering together around traditional foods, and we told the stories of the three sisters – corn, beans and squash,” said Poulsen.
Also, with wojapi – a traditional Dakota berry desert served in the region, Greene Trottier and Poulsen showed the participants how they could use the cranberries supplied in the FDPIR traditional foods basket, and not add a lot of sugar, as fruit becomes sweeter as it cooks and boils down.
Cooking and Sharing
The passport helped participants track their nutrition mission, and the recipes that were demonstrated (and taste tested) showed how easy the FDPIR foods can be to use to prepare nutritious meals at home. However, if one is looking at food insecurity, you might only think about the lack of food itself. Sometimes what is standing in the way of creating more nutritious meals is the lack of the proper equipment.
“The participants were so happy to receive the cookware or bakeware. They were crying and hugging us. It was emotional. We purchased different colored sets so they would get to choose the color they wanted. They have ownership in it now, and they were so excited.”
Greene Trottier and Poulsen say the incentive of completing the courses and earning the new kitchen tools made an impact on the participants and the staff. Newsletters were also sent out after each lesson providing more tips to stay on track with their nutrition changes, along with more recipes, and just to remind the participants they had support on their nutrition journey.
“We’ve provided a reason for them to use it (the cookware) and we’ve emphasized the nutrition,” said Greene Trottier. “Now we can move forward with future series, provide more lessons and continue them in the spring. We learn from sharing … nutrition education is fun.”
By Mary K. Bowannie, First Nations Communications Officer