In Indian Country, finding a restaurant is easy – if you want to eat at a fast-food chain that serves cheap, fattening meals. Native American cuisine now typically means fry bread, a disk of dough deep-fried in oil or lard. Few stores sell fresh produce on reservations. And, perhaps surprisingly, farmers’ markets are practically impossible to find.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture deems most reservations “food deserts” — low-income areas where many people lack access to nutritional foods. According to the Center for Rural Health, about 6 in 10 Native Americans age 55 and older survive on between $5,000 and $10,000 a year. The brutal one-two punch of rampant poverty and low-quality food hits tribal elders particularly hard. A 2013 study by First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) found that American Indian seniors “now suffer from higher rates of congestive heart failure, high blood pressure, diabetes and stroke than the general population age 55 and older.”
To help end chronic hunger among older Native Americans, AARP Foundation has awarded $438,000 to First Nations Development Institute since 2012. The nonprofit based in Longmont, Colorado, in turn provided grants, training and technical assistance to several innovative programs that aim to improve nutrition for American Indian seniors while fostering community. “First Nations does a really good job finding tribes that have the capacity and the need, and that’s a fine line,” says Maggie Biscarr, program manager for AARP Foundation’s Hunger Impact area. “You have to work with groups that really need it — and have some level of capacity to deliver.”
First Nations recently awarded $25,000 sub-grants to four tribes in Arizona, New Mexico, North Dakota and Wisconsin for anti-hunger initiatives. The second round of funding follows a $100,000 grant distributed in 2012 for four innovative projects, including the Ponca Tribe of Oklahoma’s Healthy Pork initiative; the Traditional Food Systems Revitalization Project of the Santo Domingo Pueblo in New Mexico; and the Pueblo of Nambe’s Community Farm, also in New Mexico.
“We are pleased to again support an organization that has a proven record in hunger relief, and look forward to watching the new programs grow in impact for Native American elders,” says AARP Foundation President Lisa Marsh Ryerson.
Amos Hinton, director of agriculture for the Ponca Tribe, reports that his program has bred, processed and distributed more than 6,000 pounds of free-range pork since 2012. “Commercial agriculture has gone so far away from the way animals were intended to be raised and grain was meant to be grown,” says Amos, who frets that many of his neighbors subsisted on “low-end processed lunch meats from cans” if they could afford meat at all. When Amos delivered locally raised, hormone-free pork to an elderly woman shortly after launching his project, he remembers being told, I’m so glad to see you, because I didn’t know how we were going to eat for the rest of the week. “That bothered me — really, really bothered me,” admits Amos, who is in the process of breeding four more pigs.
The AARP Foundation grant enabled the Pueblo of Nambe to buy a second-hand tractor, tools, and seeds, and to pay for some labor to build a 20-by-40-foot hoop house. The structure, made of flexible plastic over a wood frame, harnesses solar radiation to extend the growing season. Before the hoop house was built, George Toya, the Pueblo’s farm manager, estimated that his growing season started in May and ended in late September. After completion, the season doubled and now lasts from late February until November. The farm produces lettuce, spinach, beets and carrots, as well as the venerated chili pepper. “Chilies are everything here,” notes George, who donates much of the harvest to the community’s senior center.
When George was growing up, he remembers cutting wheat by hand with a sickle along with his father, grandfather and many neighbors: “When one field ripened and was ready to cut, [local] farmers came over and helped.” His family gladly returned the favor. “The work went really quick,” says George, who believes Nambe’s community farm has revived a communal spirit. “It’s starting to come back again.”
The Pueblo of Santo Domino’s Traditional Food Systems Revitalization Project grows not only traditional crops but also relationships, says Harley Coriz, who oversees the local senior center. The grant they received enabled the tribe to build a greenhouse, where vegetables for seniors grow during winter. The venture connects tribal elders and youth who plant and harvest corn, melons and tomatoes, and other fruits and vegetables. “The seniors teach youths the names of plants in the native tongue,” says Harley, who points out that the program yields an unexpected benefit: empowering women volunteers. “Mainly males did the farming, so a lot of the older ladies have never planted before and they were really enthused,” he notes.
“Everything is centered around agriculture in our society,” Harley continues. “We plant as a community, we harvest as a community and — they tell us growing up — life begins with putting seeds into the ground.”
This article, by David Wallis, was written and published by AARP Foundation, Bob Somerville, editor. It is reprinted here with permission from AARP Foundation’s Drive to End Hunger nationwide campaign.