September 27, 2023

On a recent day at the Oneida Nation’s organic farm in northeastern Wisconsin, a volunteer winnowed the tribe’s traditional white corn. Wind from a fan caught the chaff and sent it flying away like confetti while the kernels dropped into a big, white bucket. The farm’s outreach coordinator, Luwatiya’takenhas Danforth, watched from a few feet away.

“Our white corn has been here since the beginning of time, when our Sky Woman fell from the sky,” Danforth said. 

The corn Danforth described has more than twice the protein found in yellow sweet corn. The Department of Agriculture is investing $3.5 million to increase access to this kind of traditional food in Indigenous communities.

The three-year pilot project includes the Oneida and Menominee nations, along with six other partners.

One in four Native people in the U.S. lack adequate access to food. For decades, the federal approach to that problem had been shipping foodstuffs like cheese, white flour and salt pork to tribal communities. But that has contributed to high rates of diabetes and obesity. The new federal program aims to give tribes more ownership of their food. 

About $500,000 from that program is supporting a joint effort by the Oneida and Menominee. According to Feeding America, the country’s highest food insecurity rate among children is in Menominee County, Wisconsin, which overlaps almost entirely with tribal land. 

That money is earmarked to fund grass-feed beef and bison as well as apples. Other projects focus on fish and tribal-grown crops.

As Heather Jordan walked through the Wisconsin farm’s orchard, which she manages for the tribe, she described the crops.

“We have blackberries. Asparagus is coming up,” she said, also mentioning cantaloupe, sunflowers and beans. “The next is watermelon and more beans.”

The USDA program is funding the apple crop, but Jordan sees a bigger mission. 

“I wanted to change it from not just being an apple orchard. If we’re going to be part of the food sovereignty mission, I want to try to be able to supply a selection of fresh produce, grown safely, least amount of chemicals that we can for our nation as well as offering that to the public.”

These days the idea of food as medicine is common. But Vanessa Miller, who manages Oneida Nation’s food and agriculture program, said that’s just the tip of the iceberg for Indigenous peoples. 

“Food connects us back to our agricultural ways, connects us back to our communities, connects us back to our people, our families, our culture, our Indigenous ways of knowing, our language. Really who we are at our core,” she said. 

Miller has hope for the food sovereignty program’s future.

“We are continuing to advocate very strongly to the federal government for continuance of this program to be permanent expansion, to be able to extend to all tribal nations to be able to participate in this permanent program and expanding into self-governance,” she said.

Expanding, Miller said, would enable tribes to include many more healthy Indigenous foods they could grow and distribute for themselves. 

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