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First Nations Development Institute Advances Food Sovereignty

One of the common problems in Indian Country—in both rural and urban areas—is the lack of nutritious food options available a short distance from home. A term that is thrown around frequently in sustainability circles is “food desert,” defined by the Market Makers website as “…geographic areas where mainstream grocery stores are either totally absent or inaccessible to low-income shoppers.” Many tribes throughout the country are creating programs to help alleviate food deserts in Native communities, such as community gardens and the raising of livestock. However, as with many community-based food initiatives, funding is desperately needed.

One organization that has been working specifically with Native American communities on food issues is First Nations Development Institute (FNDI), based in Longmont, Colorado, through its Native Agriculture and Food Systems Initiative (NAFSI).

"The purpose of the Native American Food Security project is to support Native organizations working to eliminate food insecurity among tribal elders in rural and/or reservation-based Native American communities in Arizona, Louisiana, New Mexico and Oklahoma,” states the NAFSI webpage.

“NAFSI looks at the intersections of food systems in Native communities, economic development, entrepreneurship, Native health, issues of fitness, and also the intersection of culture,” said senior program officer Raymond Foxworth, Navajo. “We see ourselves as an intermediary to the broader foundation world and supporting Native communities.”

The NAFSI program obtained three major grants to help support Native food systems. These include $300,000 from the Walmart Foundation, $450,000 from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and $100,000 from the AARP Foundation.

Foxworth said that the Walmart and Kellogg Foundation grants focus on overall food security issues, but that the AARP grant deals specifically with food security impact on Native elders.

After obtaining the monies from these foundations, NAFSI then redistributes them through a competitive application process. Grant applicants range from tribal governments to Native American non-profits.

“Internally, what we are looking for are proposals or programs that demonstrate innovative and unique ideas that can contribute to Native food system control,” said Foxworth. “When we look at the health statistics related to food consumption in Indian communities, they’re dismal. When we look at statistics of low income families, in terms of percentage of their income that’s spent on food, it tends to be a high percentage. What we’re looking at are programs that can look at those two issues and come up with home-grown Native community solutions to those kinds of dynamics or troubling statistics that mainstream America has focused on.

“Solutions to these kinds of community challenges are being developed internally by Native nations,” Foxworth continued. “That’s the goal of this program—to support those programs and be able to show, at the end, the great outcomes associated with these programs.”

One of the grant recipients from the NAFSI program is the Fort Peck Assiniboine & Sioux Tribes, whose tribal offices are located in Poplar, Montana, in the northeast corner of the state. The Wolf Point Food Bank on the Fort Peck Reservation not only serves tribal members but also others in need from the surrounding five counties. According to releases from FNDI, the Wolf Point Food Bank received $31,920 from the Walmart Foundation and $13,080 from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation disbursements to “purchase and install two large walk-in freezers, and walk-in refrigerator and shelving,” said the FNDI release.

Shawn Olson, an enrolled Assiniboine and food bank volunteer, said that up to 300 people are helped monthly by Wolf Point. Food items include chicken, turkey, hamburger, ham and buffalo, as well as pantry items such as canned fruits and vegetables and boxed pastas. In the spring, the Wolf Point Food Bank obtains fresh vegetables from the nearby Prairie Elk Colony of Hutterites, whose religious and cultural origins are related to the Amish.

Olson said the grocery stores that are on the Fort Peck Reservation are few in number, with many people having to travel to either Glasgow, Montana or Williston, North Dakota to shop for fresh produce.

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“We only have a few grocery stores and limited variety, high priced, and trucked in from other places,” said Olson. “We have a collection of seven communities across the reservation running along Highway 2—about a 100 mile stretch going east to west.”

Olson said that the food bank currently has freezers that are either donated or on loan, with one of their units being a converted refrigeration truck. She also said that the freezers on loan are sometimes reclaimed by the owners. The grant obtained by the tribe will help expand the options of both the food bank and community members.

“The walk-in freezers and cooler will allow the food bank to be able to put things in, get to it easier and have more storage capacity,” said Olson. “One of the things we proposed in the grant application was to designate some of the freezer space to be available for families to rent.”

Additional plans at the Wolf Point Food Bank include classes on cutting meat for wrapping and freezing as well as classes on proper methods of drying meat.

“I think there’s a lot of great work that’s already being done,” Foxworth said about tribal food initiatives. “From the programs that we’re supporting, some are looking at inter-generational learning—bringing elders to youth to teach them how to value food, not only how to plant but how folks are supposed to act when they enter fields and plant—the cultural significance of food connected to health and diet. Those types of programs are important.”

About FNDI

The wife and children of Dakota leader Little Crow were among those at Fort Snelling, circa 1863.

Michael E. Roberts

FNDI was founded in 1980 by Rebecca Adamson, a Cherokee who has worked nationally as an advocate for local tribal issues since 1970. FDNI helps Native Americans build economic self-sufficiency by funding projects that rely on traditional values, and helping tribal communities gain control of their land and natural resources.

Michael E. Roberts (Tlingit), FNDI president since 2006, calls the nonprofit “a think and do tank” with a distinct propensity for action. Its areas of focus include financial and investor education, combating predatory lending, Native American business and asset development, nonprofit capacity building, and Native food and health issues.

FNDI’s wholly-owned subsidiary, First Nations Oweesta Corporation, is an “intermediary” CDFI that helps develop and lends to other Native CDFIs.

FNDI is currently expanding NAFSI, which started more than a decade ago.

"Food is essential to healthy, strong tribal nations. Having enough good food to eat—food security—is just one element of food sovereignty. That involves controlling and managing all of the factors that contribute to a sustainable food system," B. Thomas Vigil (Jicarilla Apache/Jemez Pueblo), chairman of the FNDI Board of Directors, wrote in his Chairman's message.