Shondiin Silversmith

(States Newsroom) As a way to incorporate healthy lifestyle routines and food choices, the U.S. Department of Interior is launching an initiative to support health and nutrition efforts across Indian Country through Indigenous food hubs.

The goal, said Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland, is “to provide healthier food to Indigenous communities and help to repair the damage done to Indigenous foodways by the harmful policies of the past, including colonization, relocation, and assimilation.”

The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and Bureau of Indian Education (BIE), both of which operate under DOI, will create Indigenous Food Hubs for BIE-operated schools and BIA-operated detention centers.

“Indigenous food is about more than just nutrition,” Newland said. “Food is an important part of Native cultures, traditions, history and community.”

These hubs are an effort for the BIA and BIE to help source Indigenous foods, enhance culturally based healthy nutrition education and boost training for healthy and culturally appropriate food preparation.

There are 55 BIE-operated schools and 26 BIA-operated corrections programs across the country.

“Food is an integral cornerstone of Indigenous communities — it represents our connection to the Earth and the customs that have been passed down through generations,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said in a press release. “Yet Indigenous communities face historically high rates of food insecurity and often lack access to affordable and healthy foods.”

Move for Hunger, a national non-profit organization that works to reduce food waste and fight hunger, says that 1 in 4 Indigenous people experiences food insecurity, compared to 1 in 9 Americans overall and 1 in 12 white/non-Hispanic individuals.

In Arizona, Apache County primarily comprises tribal land from the Navajo Nation, Zuni, and White Mountain Apache Tribes. It has a food insecurity rate of 22%, according to Move for Hunger, making it the highest out of any majority Native American county in the U.S.

Of the 28 counties that are majority Native American, 18 have considered high food insecurity.

“The solutions for these challenges lie within our own people, within our own knowledge,” Wizipan Garriott, the principal deputy assistant secretary for Indian affairs at DOI, told the Arizona Mirror. “We have a challenge. We have a solution.”

As part of the BIE and BIA’s Indigenous food hub initiative, they will hire a nutritionist for the first time to help develop and implement culturally appropriate nutrition and training standards that draw from Indigenous knowledge. The BIE and BIA will also make efforts to identify and connect Native vendors and producers and community-based systems, such as tribal food sovereignty and health programs.

The initiative will utilize Indigenous knowledge to develop holistic approaches to support Native food sovereignty movements incorporating culture, social determinants of health, food, nutrition, land management, and regenerative agriculture.

“Tribes have the solutions to their own challenges,” Garriott said. “It’s our job to empower tribes and Indigenous people to develop the solutions to the challenges they face.”

The program will include pilot hubs at four BIE schools and four BIA detention centers to source foods from Native producers and vendors, provide training for cooks and develop educational materials.

“Indigenous peoples for thousands of years had good diets,” Garriott added. “We were physically fit, we were healthy, and a lot of that was because of our lifestyle and healthy eating habits.”

Now, some of the biggest challenges Indigenous people face involves their overall health, Garriott said, and the BIE and BIA must do everything they can to help those under their care, including the kids attending their schools and the people in their detention centers.

Garriott said the department is working out the timeline for launching the food hubs, and a selection process is being designed. The Interior Department wants to ensure they can support the infrastructure surrounding the Indigenous food hubs.

The Interior Department announced its new initiative during the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health at the end of September. It is part of the Biden administration’s national hunger, nutrition, and health strategy, which aims to end hunger and increase healthy eating and physical activity.

“The Biden-Harris administration is committed to improving food access and affordability across Indian Country, while also relying on Indigenous knowledge to ensure Native communities receive culturally appropriate healthy nutrition education,” Haaland said.

Erin Parker, the executive director for the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative, said it was exciting to see traditional food and tribal food sovereignty included in the White House’s national strategy.

“It’s nice to see the federal government taking a little bit of initiative,” Parker said.

The IFAI is a non-profit organization that “focuses on putting tribal sovereignty in food sovereignty, promoting tribally driven solutions to revitalize and advance traditional food systems and diversified economic development throughout Indian Country.”

Parker said the federal government making opportunities for better connections for Indigenous communities and traditional or culturally appropriate food is the baseline of the trust responsibility they owe tribal nations.

“The long-term impacts on Indigenous health that comes from better connections to those foods can’t be understated,” Parker said, noting that the principles behind Indigenous nutrition science have been known for thousands of years.

“It’s called traditional food because it’s part of a tradition,” she said.

More federal entities getting involved with Indigenous food sovereignty is the result of an increase of Indigenous representation at the federal level, Parker said, because having that voice at the table matters in pushing some of these policy initiatives forward.

“It’s not just the health of Indigenous people having access to those foods — it’s also about the health of the communities,” Parker said. “It’s a connection to culture, and all of those things are valuable parts of Indigenous lifeway.”

Parker has been fighting for nearly 10 years for an increase in support for policies related to Indigenous food and food sovereignty, and it took years of advocacy and leadership from tribal communities to get to this point.

“It’s nice to see all that work kind of coalescing into hopefully some better food access for culturally appropriate food,” Parker said.

The BIA and the BIE were not the only federal entities to make committees to support food sovereignty as part of the administration’s national strategy. The USDA is trying to support tribal food sovereignty by improving staff recruitment and training to ensure they have the knowledge to serve Indigenous communities.

The USDA is also working on expanding the Food Distribution Program on tribal nations, partnering with tribes to enhance food packages, expand the number of Indigenous and traditional foods in their programs, and provide resources to school meal program operators on incorporating Indigenous and traditional foods into school meals.

The Administration for Children & Families is working on updating its resource guide for Indigenous communities to increase tribal nations’ knowledge of and access to Health & Human Service resources for food security, food sovereignty and physical activity.

And the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development intends to promote the eligible uses of Indian Community Development Block Grant dollars to support expanding food access through the development of food banks and pantries, healthy eating habits, physical activities, and more in tribal communities, particularly those with limited access to affordable and nutritious foods.