What Is Food Sovereignty?

In our August 27 blog, we talked about food insecurity and food deserts and promised more to come on food sovereignty. So, let’s start by clarifying what food sovereignty is and why it’s important. Food sovereignty is about the right of a people to determine their own policies relative to food and agriculture–rather than having their food supply subject to market forces. The U.S. Food Sovereignty Alliance states:

“Food sovereignty goes well beyond ensuring that people have enough food to meet their physical needs. It asserts that people must reclaim their power in the food system by rebuilding the relationships between people and the land, and between food providers and those who eat. First framed by the international peasant movement La Via Campesina at the World Food Summit in 1996, food sovereignty is rooted in the ongoing global struggles over control of food, land, water, and livelihoods.”

The indigenous people of this country certainly understand losing their relationship to the land and to their food source, having experienced both through the forced relocation of tribes onto reservations and the hunting of buffalo to near extinction by westward settlers. Many of the reservation trust lands designated for Native American tribes are barren—inadequate for farming. Many reservation communities in our service area have contaminated water from mining run-off, dumping and natural pollutants—or lack access to local water sources sufficient for crop irrigation. Many communities, too, are an hour or more away from the nearest supermarket–not easy when the community is also short on jobs and transportation. The implications are made clear by this food desert infographic showing affected tribes and why food sovereignty is a must for these sovereign nations.

Food sovereignty is sort of a “bottom up” approach that focuses on what works for people and communities and it involves food providers in the equation of looking at solutions. Growing and processing one’s own food is a big part of it… involving farmers, families, fishers, ranchers, migrants and indigenous people. Harvesting what is naturally occurring and compatible with one’s own environment is also a big part of the food sovereignty equation.

Partnership With Native Americans is doing its part to address the challenge of food sovereignty on Native lands by supporting community investment projects on the reservations. In one long-term approach toward food sovereignty, PWNA is tilling gardens, training gardeners, and supporting farmer’s markets, greenhouses and canning classes, in collaboration with reservation partners and their local volunteers. One garden enthusiast, John Yellow Hawk, went from “gardener to grower” and tribal members purchased his produce at local and mobile farmers markets across the Pine Ridge Reservation. You can read more about John and his role in one Pine Ridge garden in our 2014 annual report. (2016 update: We were saddened to hear of John’s passing in June 2016, and we will always remember his goodness, gift for gardening and the contribution he made to his community.)

By definition, it is important that food sovereignty initiatives be community-led… by the people for the people. One such project involved PWNA developing a head start curriculum focused on shaping healthy eating and exercise habits in early childhood—delivered by Crow Creek Head Start program and changing their children and parents’ relationship with food and food sources. This summer, PWNA will begin operating a mobile food truck, following our fresh produce distributions across the Northern Plains reservations to conducting healthy cooking demos with fresh vegetables. For tribes in this region, gardening is on the rise, along with farmer’s markets and a return to the traditional foods of their ancestors such as local fish, venison and berries.

Food sovereignty initiatives empower tribal members living on the reservations to grow their own healthy, fresh produce; ease low food insecurity; and realize the additional benefits of healthy eating in the prevention of heart disease and type II diabetes. To learn more about the 7 principles of food sovereignty, watch this video by the National Family Farm Coalition.

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