Revitalizing Traditional Native Foodways and Health

On the heels of World Hunger Day I’m thinking about Indigenous health and food insecurity, which is a precursor to hunger. Native Americans pass down information through the generations by word of mouth. Elders teach community members how to prepare wild game and fish, forage for edible plants or use them for medicine, and how to raise and preserve food.

But did you know that the displacement of tribes during U.S. colonization and the westward expansion completely disrupted traditional Native foodways? The tribes were relocated to remote and often barren lands with limited agricultural promise. In addition, settlers killed off the bison to near extinction, so the tribes could no longer subsist as hunters and gatherers. Instead, they were suddenly dependent upon government-furnished foods that were high in fat, sugar and starch – and along with this, diabetes became prevalent in Tribal communities for the first time ever.

This may sound like something that happened long ago, but the impact persists today. A low-income area with a third of the population living more than 10 miles from the nearest grocery store is considered a low-access rural food desert by the USDA – and that’s exactly what we see on so many reservations. The norm is to be within a mile of the grocery store, but only 26% of Native communities are (compared to 59% nationwide). In addition, outside investment in reservation communities and business is low, so jobs are scarce.

The end result? One in four (23.5%) Native American families is facing food insecurity.  Not only does food insecurity impact school readiness among preschool children, but it helps fuel diabetes. American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) adults are nearly three times more likely than non-Hispanic white adults to be diagnosed with diabetes. AIAN youth aged 10-19 have the second highest incidence rate of Type 2 diabetes in the U.S.  So, you can see how the disruption of the 1800s still impacts tribes today.

Take Action:  Download our fact sheet to learn more about gardening as a solution to food insecurity.

Fortunately, Tribal communities are rallying around their Elders, historians, foragers and ranchers to revitalize traditional Native foodways. They are sharing ancestral foods and knowledge tied to their cultures and the concept that Food is Medicine for mental, physical, emotional and spiritual strength. Tribal communities are implementing intergenerational gardens, drying and preserving food in traditional ways, foraging for locally available foods like their ancestors did, and incorporating fresh produce and bison back into their diets. Professionals who serve congregate meals in Tribal communities are also seeking healthy nutrition training.

PWNA is pleased to support all these efforts to improve Native foodways and health. You can help too by donating to our Northern Plains Reservation Aid program.

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