A-dae Romero: A Happy Success Story for Native Agriculture

A-dae at home in Lanai, Hawaii

First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) is always happy and proud when our grantees and the various projects we have supported achieve good success and begin to make positive ripples in Indian Country. We’re happy and proud a lot because we have many of these stories, but one of the recent ones is about our good friend A-dae Romero.

A-dae first flew onto First Nations’ radar in 2011 when we provided her with a USDA Community Food Projects travel scholarship to attend our L.E.A.D. Conference. At the time, A-dae was thinking of starting a nonprofit organization related to food.

That thought soon became reality with a new organization called Cochiti Youth Experience, Inc. at Cochiti Pueblo in New Mexico. (A-dae was born and raised in Cochiti Pueblo. She is Cochiti and Kiowa.) She co-founded this nonprofit so it could create positive opportunities for Cochiti’s young people, and it has a special focus on strengthening Pueblo agriculture as an economic, political and social anchor for the community. First Nations provided a grant to assist Cochiti Youth Experience in 2012 under First Nations’ Native Agriculture and Food Systems Initiative, then another grant in 2013 under our Native Youth and Culture Fund.

Since then, A-dae has continued to accomplish good things, both personally and professionally. She recently received important honors and achieved major milestones that recognize her growing impact, especially in Native American agriculture.

A-Dae (front and center in gray suit) at The White House for the "Champions of Change" honors.

In July 2014, The White House and the U.S. Department of Agriculture honored A-dae as one of 15 local “Champions of Change” leaders from across the country “who are doing extraordinary things to build the bench for the next generation of farming and ranching. These champions are leading in their industries and communities, inspiring others who want to find careers and a life on the land, and providing food, fiber, fuel, and flora around the world.”

Then, she was recently named a U.S. Fulbright Scholar, a very prestigious academic accomplishment. She will use it to study the Maori people of New Zealand. Then Agri-Pulse, a national agricultural news source, included her as one of the most influential rural agricultural advocates in its “50 Under 50” report.

Further, A-dae recently completed her LL.M. (master of law) degree in agricultural and food law through the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative at the University of Arkansas School of Law. A-dae was the initiative’s first student to complete this multi-disciplinary research, service and educational opportunity, and the initiative itself is the first of its kind nationally. This advanced law degree comes on top of her J.D. (juris doctorate) degree from Arizona State University’s College of Law, and her degree from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs (her focus was on public policy and economic policy).

A-dae now acts as a consultant with First Nations Development Institute on several of our Native Agriculture and Food Systems Initiative efforts, plus she walks in two worlds by farming with her family in New Mexico – raising blue corn and varieties of Pueblo corn – and farming with her husband’s family in Hawaii, growing taro. She also serves on the board of Native American Farmers and Ranchers through New Mexico Community Capital, and on the board of the Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance (NAFSA). And, she was just named a legal researcher for the International Development Law Organization (IDLO), in partnership with the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity (SCBD), for the new Global Network on Legal Preparedness for Achieving the Aichi Biodiversity Targets.

After earning her LL.M. degree, First Nations honored A-dae at our offices in Colorado. Left to right are Jackie Francke and Marsha Whiting of First Nations, A-dae, and Sarah Hernandez and Raymond Foxworth of First Nations.

It’s no wonder A-dae is becoming a leader in Native agriculture. According to the Agri-Pulse article, her grandfather was a leader among his people. When construction of the Cochiti Dam flooded agricultural land used by their tribe, A-dae was just a child. Yet she remembers playing nearby as her grandfather and other leaders discussed the loss of the land for farming, which was vital to the pueblo’s livelihood.

A-dae said it was “very intimate and powerful time” in her life, as the community, dependent on agriculture, struggled with the question of who they would be without farming. As she began to develop an interest in a profession that could help her to be a voice of her culture, she found a mentor who encouraged her to pursue her dreams of law school. Since then she has found a fertile and fruitful field of endeavor at the intersection of law and agriculture.

“After all,” she said in the Agri-Pulse interview, “farming is about getting our hands dirty, and there is a simple kind of happiness in that.”

By Randy Blauvelt, First Nations Senior Communications Officer

“Cheese Grater Championship” Highlights Food Issues


The winning team shows off its creation. Janie Simms Hipp is second from left, and Kathleen Fluegel is near center in red-rimmed glasses.

It was an event like no other – the first-ever “Cheese Grater Championship” – intended to illustrate the challenges that many low-income Native American families face when preparing healthy meals using “commodity food” packages.

“The event was eye-opening for some, sobering for all,” according to Virginia Clarke, executive director of the sponsoring organization, the Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems Funders (SAFSF).

Event judges show off the "Cheese Grater Championship" aprons

SAFSF held its annual forum in Denver in June 2014. The group is an international network of grantmakers (foundations and others) who are active in supporting economically viable, environmentally sound and socially responsible systems of food production, processing, distribution and consumption.  SAFSF hosts its forum in a different state each year and is well-known for site visits that are designed to make tangible, visible and real some of the most critical issues affecting agricultural and food systems.

SAFSF's Virginia Clarke with First Nations President Michael Roberts

As part of the forum, the planning committee wanted to highlight Native American food projects and issues. As an SAFSF member, First Nations Development Institute President Michael Roberts suggested and coordinated the Cheese Grater Championship, a Food Network Chopped-style cookoff like no other, where teams of forum attendees were given a selection of foods found in food-assistance commodity packages that are distributed on Indian reservations (under the USDA’s Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations). The teams then had to prepare a meal that not only would be judged for the contest, but which was lunch for the day.

Livia Marqués of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation dishes it up

The event took place at the Denver Indian Center, where the SAFSF group also heard about the center’s many programs, including its Indigenous permaculture garden project, the work of the Denver Indian Family Resource Center, an update from regional USDA officials, and insights from Janie Simms Hipp, J.D., LL.M., founding director of the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative at the University of Arkansas School of Law in Fayetteville and who previously was senior advisor for tribal relations to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack.

One team closely studies ingredients and preparation instructions

The cookoff took place in the center’s gymnasium – competing with summer youth campers for space. Teams assessed the basic food staples they were given – blocks of “government cheese,” vegetable oil, canned beef (“with juices”), instant potato flakes, powdered eggs, dry nonfat milk – debated possible recipes, assigned responsibilities and got to work!  Teams were also able to select additional items from a general “pantry” that included canned vegetables, beans or fruit, canned sauces or soups, Hamburger Helper, enriched flour, noodles or rice, peanut butter, mac and cheese mix and a few other choices. Basic cooking stations were equipped with limited kitchen utensils, pots and pans, a cheese grater (of course!), a hotplate and microwave oven.

Ever heard the expression “too many cooks in the kitchen”?  This event was that – and much more. But every team did its best to work together to create a meal worth judging – and eating – under the 30-minute time limit and limited circumstances.

The completed meals were, well, edible even if not so tasty, nutritious or well-balanced.  No people were harmed in the making of these commodity meals, but who would have thought that a package of taco seasoning could be so valuable?

While designed to be fun and engaging, the not-so-hidden intention of the event was to bring awareness to what having limited or no access to fresh, healthy food means – literally – on one’s plate.  USDA food packages have improved over the years, but still have a ways to go.  Issues like obesity, diabetes  and heart disease – all of which are evident in too-high numbers in many Native communities – and all of which are greatly affected by nutrition and diet, were forefront in participants’ minds as they cooked, chopped, stirred and ate their meals.

“Diabetes and obesity in Indian Country will be eradicated only with more attention paid to accessing healthy foods and to the more complex need to use our lands and resources to produce those healthy, culturally appropriate foods,” Janie Simms Hipp noted.  “Until then, we‘ll work with USDA and others to make sure the food-assistance programs are continually improved and culturally relevant, especially since many of our poorest and most remote citizens absolutely rely on them.”

A team works diligently on its meal

One of the funders at the event, Kathleen Fluegel, executive director of the HRK Foundation in St. Paul, Minn., had this to say in an email to Michael Roberts a few days after the cook-off: “I want to thank you for having the vision to do the exercise we did … and participate and learn for ourselves what it means to cook with limited and inadequate ingredients and, beyond that, to eat that meal and understand in a visceral and very different way what that feels like. I feel as though the layers of that experience are still revealing themselves, and I have had a hard time not sharing the experience with everyone I know… Can’t thank you enough for making the first annual cheese grater cooking competition a reality.”

First Nations’ Roberts summarized his thoughts on the event: “There is an obesity and diabetes epidemic going on in Indian Country, and our intent by putting on this event was to show that this is happening because of the situation Indian folks have been placed in for the past couple of hundred years – isolated in poverty and being fed poor-quality food by a government that would just as soon see them go away. And through the commodity food-distribution program, they just might be effecting that very outcome.”

Participants sample the completed meals

New Free Publications & Webinars Announced

We’ve been busy during the first quarter of 2014.  We published three new resources for Native American communities, plus we announced the 2014 calendar of our highly popular “First Nations Knowledge” webinar series.

The Business of Indian Agriculture

After months of research, writing, editing and designing the publication, we just published “The Business of Indian Agriculture,” a comprehensive curriculum for Native American farmers, ranchers and other agricultural producers that can be downloaded for free from the First Nations website. It is designed to be used by tribal college instructors, extension agents or workshop instructors. It includes both a 562-page Instructor Guide and a 323-page Participant Workbook.

The curriculum is designed to help farmers, ranchers and agricultural producers succeed in managing their businesses. It covers useful topics like how to develop a business plan, how to set up bookkeeping systems, and marketing. It also covers important topics like risk management, personal financial management, and using credit wisely.

The project was supported by the USDA-NIFA Beginning Farmer and Rancher Program, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the CHS Foundation. Development of the curriculum was made possible through a partnership between First Nations and the First Americans Land-Grant Consortium (FALCON), which is a nonprofit professional association of administrators, faculty and staff of land-grant tribal colleges and universities.  FALCON is sanctioned by the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC). John Phillips, who is executive director of FALCON, was the primary author. Phillips is also the land-grant program director for AIHEC.

The curriculum has five main modules:

  • Module 1: Business
  • Module 2: Accounting
  • Module 3: Financial Management
  • Module 4: Agribusiness Economics and Marketing
  • Module 5: Land Use and Management

The curriculum is offered free to anyone.  It can be viewed as an online “flipbook” or it can be downloaded as PDFs. Interested parties can also request a Word version of the materials to use and/or adapt for their own classes or other uses. To access the materials, please go to this link: www.firstnations.org/knowledge-center/foods-health/biz_of_indian_ag.

Health & Food Fact Sheets

We also published a new series of 12 fact sheets concerning Native American health and food issues.  You can read them or download them (as PDFs) from our website. They are absolutely free, but you may have to create a free account in our Knowledge Center (our online resource center) in order to access them.  If you already have a free account in our Knowledge Center, you can get right to them after you sign in.

Here’s the link: http://firstnations.org/KnowledgeCenter/NativeAmericanFoodsAndHealth/Resources/FactSheets

The list of topics covered:

  • Native Food Sovereignty
  • History of Native Food Systems
  • Food Systems and Implications for Economic Development
  • Type 1 Diabetes In Native Communities
  • Type 2 Diabetes In Native Communities
  • Heart Disease in Native Communities
  • Obesity in Native Communities
  • Food Deserts, Food Insecurity and Poverty in Native Communities
  • Commodity Foods and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program
  • Traditional Native Foods and Health
  • Reclaiming Native Food Systems and Promoting Cultural Practices
  • Eating Healthy in Native Communities

These Fact Sheets were created as part of our Native Agriculture and Food Systems Initiative (NAFSI), and were generously underwritten by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

American Indian Leadership

We also published a 78-page report titled “American Indian Leadership: Strengthening Native Communities and Organizations.” It is available for free on our Knowledge Center at this link: http://firstnations.org/knowledge-center/strengthening-nonprofits.

The report gives an historical perspective of Native American leadership styles, including what led to the development of tribal governments and Indian-led organizations today, and it looks at the state of existing Native leadership programs across the U.S. The publication was underwritten by Northwest Area Foundation.

Here’s an excerpt from the Executive Summary: “Despite attempts to diminish, belittle and totally transform Native concepts, belief systems and values of leadership, strong leadership remains one of the most important assets in Native communities. American Indian leaders have held steadfast to tribal belief systems and values and fought for the preservation and perpetuation of Native identity, land and sovereignty. Leaders of Native nations today are still committed to these values. Native leaders still recognize that strong, ethical and innovative leadership from various sectors has the ability to transform American Indian communities.”

Here’s the link again. Then select “American Indian Leadership: Strengthening Native Communities and Organizations.” http://firstnations.org/knowledge-center/strengthening-nonprofits.

2014 Webinar Series

For the second year in a row, we announced we will host a series of free webinars called “First Nations Knowledge” during 2014. This year’s series focuses on food safety, and will provide specialized and technical webinars to develop the capacity of tribes, Native businesses, farmers, ranchers and other individuals involved in growing, processing, packaging and/or marketing food products.

We will present the webinars in partnership with the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative at the University of Arkansas School of Law in Fayetteville. Each webinar will last 1-1/2 hours, with the first hour for presentations followed by a half-hour of questions and answers.

The first of this year’s nine-part series was held on March 20.   It was the first of two webinars on biological, chemical, radiological and physical hazards. The second part will be scheduled for April.

Over the webinar series, presenters from the University of Arkansas will include Steven C. Seideman, Ph.D., who is extension food processing specialist at the Institute of Food Science & Engineering; Janie Simms Hipp, J.D., LL.M. (Agricultural Law) (Chickasaw), who serves as founding director of the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative; and John Marcy, Ph.D., a food microbiologist with more than 35 years associated with the meat and poultry industries.

The planned remaining schedule for this year is as follows. Dates will be formalized on a monthly basis, and scheduling or topics may change depending on availability of expert presenters. To receive information about each webinar as it is scheduled, follow First Nations on Facebook and Twitter or sign up to receive informational emails from First Nations at this link. You can also check on the First Nations Knowledge webpage at this link: http://firstnations.org/programs/foods-health?qt-native_american_foods_health=7#qt-native_american_foods_health.

  • March (Completed) – Part 1: Biological, Chemical, Radiological and Physical Hazards
  • April – Part 2: Biological, Chemical, Radiological and Physical Hazards
  • May – Basic Legal Environment for Food Safety
  • June – Documentation and Record-keeping; Validation and Verification
  • July – Your Business Plan & Food Safety
  • August – The Five Principles of Good Agricultural Practices
  • September – Raw Products, Wild Products and Value-Added Products
  • October – Food Labeling, Nutrition and Allergens
  • November – Food Defense