“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

First Nations Again Awarded Top 4-Star Rating

First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) has been awarded Charity Navigator’s coveted four-star rating for a third year in a row, in recognition of First Nations’ sound fiscal management and commitment to accountability and transparency.

In a July 1, 2014, letter to First Nations, Charity Navigator President & CEO Ken Berger noted: “Only 12% of the charities we rate have received at least three consecutive 4-star evaluations, indicating that First Nations Development Institute outperforms most other charities in America. This ‘exceptional’ designation from Charity Navigator differentiates First Nations Development Institute from its peers and demonstrates to the public it is worthy of their trust.”

“Receiving four out of a possible four stars indicates that your organization adheres to good governance and other best practices that minimize the chance of unethical activities and consistently executes its mission in a fiscally responsible way,” Berger further indicated.

“We are honored to receive this top rating again this year, especially since so few nonprofit organizations achieve it over three consecutive years,” said Michael E. Roberts, First Nations president. “We believe it reflects our dedicated accountability to all of our constituencies – our generous donors and the Native American communities that we serve – and it demonstrates our commitment to pursuing our important work in a clear, honest and fiscally responsible manner, using good stewardship of charitable contributions while maintaining the public trust.”

Final Meeting Held for 4 Tribes in Asset-Building Project

Representatives from all project partners at the final meeting, plus First Nations President Michael Roberts (far left) and First Nations Program Officer Lisa Yellow Eagle (fourth from right, back row)

On May 2, 2014, First Nations brought representatives from the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin, the Hopi Education Endowment Fund (Arizona), the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe (Minnesota) and the Spokane Tribe of Indians (Washington) together in Denver, Colorado, for a final meeting of the Native Asset-Building Partnership Project.

The project was meant to strengthen tribal and Native institutions through peer learning and model development that will help improve control and management of assets for the Oneida Tribe and the Mille Lacs Band.  First Nations found tribal mentors to help the Oneida and Mille Lacs design programs that will support, educate and strengthen the capacity of the youth of each tribe.

The Hopi Education Endowment Fund (HEEF) is an Internal Revenue Code (IRC) Section 7871 program that raises funds for Hopi students’ education.  This means HEEF is recognized by the Internal Revenue Service as being a division of a tribal government that can receive tax-deductible donations.  HEEF has mentored the Oneida on designing and implementing an IRC Section 7871 program.  Oneida has chosen to put together a framework for an Oneida Youth Leadership Institute to encourage, empower and provide leadership training to tribal youth.  Oneida has chosen to use the IRC Section 7871 designation rather than the 501(c)(3) designation because it supports tribal sovereignty while still allowing donations to be tax-deductible.

The Spokane Tribe’s Department of Natural Resources has conducted a summer youth and mentorship program for more than a decade.  The department incorporates traditions and culture into its summer programs and learning camps to teach youth how their ancestors used science to fish, hunt, build housing, etc.  The department mentored the Mille Lacs on designing and implementing a summer youth program in Minnesota.  The Mille Lacs designed a curriculum for high school students as extra-curricular science classes that will incorporate traditions and culture.  The Mille Lacs also will implement a summer internship program at its Department of Natural Resources during June 2014.  This will allow a tribal youth to work with the staff and learn about the different programs within the department as well as learning about career opportunities.

At the final meeting, all partners presented on their projects to First Nations and to the other partners involved in the project.  First Nations also helped the two partnerships come up with action plans for the next year (after the grant is complete).  The meeting was a success and the two projects developed more definite plans that will help them implement their projects in the upcoming months.

By Lisa Yellow Eagle, First Nations Program Officer

18th Annual L.E.A.D. Conference a Huge Success

First Nations President Michael Roberts opens the conference and introduces the first keynote speaker.

In early October 2013, First Nations held its 18th Annual L.E.A.D. Institute Conference at the Mystic Lake Casino Hotel in Prior Lake, Minnesota, at the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community.  It attracted a record number of attendees – almost 200 – who journeyed to the event from numerous Native nonprofits, tribal governments, businesses and other entities across the U.S.  It also attracted foundation and corporate executives, many of whom presented at workshops or on panels during the conference.

Lori Watso of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community talks about renewable energy and sustainability efforts.

Although the group was diverse, they all shared one common purpose: they are deeply interested in building, rebuilding, growing and improving Native American communities and economies.  This is a purpose that aligns directly with First Nations’ own goal and mission.

L.E.A.D.  stands for “Leadership and Entrepreneurial Apprenticeship Development” program. It is a First Nations effort designed to provide training, mentorship and networking opportunities to emerging and existing Native American leaders and other professionals, particularly those engaged in nonprofit work but also for those involved in Native businesses and governments.

The conference kicked off with intensive pre-sessions that included the areas of agriculture and Native food sovereignty, financial capability, and urban Indian programs. Co-sponsors of these pre-sessions included the Shakopee Farm, Intertribal Agriculture Council, Northwest Area Foundation and The Kresge Foundation. The pre-sessions ended and the main conference began with a networking reception sponsored by Comcast|NBCUniversal.

The Funders Panel draws lots of interest and questions.

The next day and a half featured keynote presentations and breakout workshops on a variety of topics related to First Nations’ focus areas of asset-building, nonprofit capacity-building and Native food systems. Among the keynote speakers were Lori Watso, secretary/treasurer of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, who spoke about some of the tribe’s renewable energy and sustainability initiatives; and Bill Black, vice president and executive director of the Comcast Foundation and director of community investment for Comcast Corporation, who addressed why and how his company is supporting organizations in Indian Country. The breakout sessions covered areas such as marketing, communications and social media, financial and investor education, good agriculture practices, nonprofit incorporation and board development, Native food policy, and financial management.

Comcast Foundation's Bill Black keynotes about why and how Comcast is supporting Indian Country.

The conference ended with the ever-popular Funders Panel comprised of representatives from foundations that support Indian Country. They provided insights, guidance and tips on dealing with their foundations in seeking support for projects and initiatives. Panelists included representatives from Northwest Area Foundation, Otto Bremer Foundation, CHS Foundation, Bush Foundation, Margaret A. Cargill Foundation, Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, and First Nations.
By Marsha Whiting, First Nations Senior Program Officer

 

Open House Celebrates Permanent Home of First Nations

Some of First Nations' staff members at the Open House. L to R are Montoya Whiteman, Marsha Whiting and Lisa Yellow Eagle

On Sept. 6, nearly 100 people came together to celebrate First Nations Development Institute’s new permanent home and office building in Longmont, Colorado.  The occasion was an open house featuring good food, friends, supporters and, of course, lots of fun.

First Nations actually moved into the existing building in the north part of Longmont back on April 26, but it wasn’t until early September that we were ready and able to pause and celebrate.  We had to get everything situated and make a few updates and repairs (and we’ll continue to make improvements in the future), plus we had to do our regular work in the meantime.

John Emhoolah Jr. (Kiowa and Arapaho) offers his song

Some of the attendees included Longmont Mayor Dennis Coombs and other local elected officials, state officials, representatives from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, area business people, the professional and business tenants in our building, some of the funders, foundations and individual donors who help sustain us, and numerous representatives from other American Indian organizations in Colorado and New Mexico such as the Native American Rights Fund, the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, the Notah Begay III Foundation, the American Indian College Fund, the Denver Indian Center, and Native American Bank.  We even had a few of our Facebook friends and Twitter followers drop by for the event.

Besides ample and delicious food and the chance to reconnect with many friends and professional Native connections, the highlights of the observance were remarks and a ceremonial ribbon-cutting by First Nations President Michael Roberts (Tlingit), and a Kiowa song and blessing by noted Colorado Indian leader John Emhoolah Jr. (Kiowa and Arapaho).  Then we celebrated with cake!

John EchoHawk, left, executive director of the Native American Rights Fund, chats with First Nations President Mike Roberts

We’re planning to call our building the “First Nations Professional Building.” It’s located at 2432 Main Street in Longmont, Colorado.

As the chairman of our board of directors, B. Thomas Vigil (Jicarilla Apache/Jemez Pueblo), noted in our recent annual report, “First Nations purchased its own headquarters building after years of leasing space and dealing with seemingly endless rent increases. It became obvious that First Nations needed to seize control of its own physical space. The building is now a key asset of the organization, providing operational space as well as rental income from other tenants. I believe it’s a sign of the continuing growth and maturity of the organization, and is testament to its growing presence, impact and credibility in Native communities.”

First Nations and NUIFC Launch Urban Indian Project

First Nations Development Institute and the National Urban Indian Family Coalition (NUIFC), based in Seattle, Washington, recently partnered on a three-year program to build the capacity and effectiveness of urban American Indian/Alaska Native nonprofit organizations. The project is made possible by a grant from the The Kresge Foundation.

In August, First Nations and NUIFC came together to sign the necessary memorandum of undertanding for the partnership, and a few days later we launched the request for proposals for organizations to apply for grants.

Shown here signing the documents are First Nations President Michael Roberts (right), with (L to R) Nichole Maher, who is chair of NUIFC board and president of the Northwest Health Foundation in Portland, Oregon; and Janeen Comenote, executive director of NUIFC.

First Nations and NUIFC will be announcing the first-year grantees soon.

 

Website a Resource for Native Food & Agriculture Efforts

A new website was launched on April 15 that aims to become a valuable online resource for Native American tribes, organizations and individuals who are involved in food systems and agricultural efforts, and/or who are aiming for better health and nutrition for their families and communities.

The site is www.NativeFoodSystems.org.  It was created by First Nations, with funding provided by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. For more than 32 years, First Nations has been working to restore Native American control and culturally-compatible stewardship of the assets they own – be they land, human potential, cultural heritage or natural resources – and to establish new assets for ensuring the long-term vitality of Native Homepage screenshotAmerican communities. Part of this effort centers on food, through First Nations’ Native Agriculture and Food System Initiative, or NAFSI.

Under NAFSI, First Nations also provides grants to numerous food and agricultural efforts by tribes and nonprofit organizations, and recently announced the awarding of 10 such grants totaling $375,000. First Nations, in partnership with the Taos County Economic Development Corporation in Taos, New Mexico, is also working to create the Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance, which is intended to become a sustainable and organized movement that is Native American driven and controlled, nationally active and dedicated to addressing food security, hunger and nutrition in Native American communities at the national, tribal and local levels.

“We believe that our work in the food sector has many benefits, all of which are critically important,” noted Michael E. Roberts, president of First Nations.  “These include improved Native health and nutrition, of course, but also a reconnection with traditional foods and a reinforcement of our cultural practices and customs.  Further, regaining control of food systems can provide a huge and much-needed boost to the development of Native economies.”

The new www.NativeFoodSystems.org website features a diverse variety of resources and information, ranging from tribal gardens, farms and markets, to youth programs and farm-to-school efforts, to seed saving, to traditional plants and medicine, to food marketing and handling, to home gardening, canning and healthy family eating. The site was designed and built by First Nations Project Officer Ruben Hernandez, and research and content was provided by Andrea Cournoyer of Plain Depth Consulting.

By Raymond Foxworth, First Nations Senior Program Officer