OLYMPIA, Wash. - There is truth in the old adage, "You are what you eat." Hold a high-fat, refined, color-dyed Cheeto next to a stem of freshly cut broccoli some day and notice the difference.
The Cheeto is misshapen, unnaturally colored, greasy to the touch. The broccoli glows with radiant life. It is glossy to feel and has hundreds of little flower buds crowning its top.
One hundred years ago, given a choice, Native peoples wouldn't have touched a Cheeto with a barge pole. One look would have told them the life force was twisted and the nutrient value gone.
But they were not given a choice. Removed from their accustomed hunting and gathering places, crowded onto often barren reservations, they were handed the staples of the day - refined white flour, white potatoes and white sugar - and told to make the best of it.
Today, on-reservation and off, tribal members have acquired the habit of eating these foods. The government Commodity Food Program hands out cheap, starchy, highly-refined foods to reservations. Located in remote areas with healthy whole foods not readily available, tribal members depend on the local convenience stores for their groceries. And what do these convenient and expensive stores carry? More of the same heavily processed, high sugar, high fat, packaged foods.
Diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity and stroke run rampant through Indian country, blatant testimony to the relationship between food and health. Many people, elders and health and social workers, are beginning to recognize that unless some changes are made, and soon, the health of Native people will continue to drastically decline.
Enter the Native American Food Systems Project. A collaborative effort between the Northwest Indian Applied Research Institute, South Puget Intertribal Planning Agency and The Evergreen Sate College in Olympia, the educational food systems program is designed to assist tribal communities address these serious nutrition/health problems.
The project goal is to encourage tribes in the Puget Sound area to return to production and consumption of the healthy, traditional foods enjoyed by their ancestors. The project is designed to assist tribes to develop food production programs, while stimulating economic development and entrepreneurial efforts by tribal members.
The project started with a Native American food production and marketing conference sponsored by the institute in 1998. Nutritionists, health workers, elders and other interested individuals came from as far away as New Mexico to participate. They discussed everything from the ecological restoration of native crops to greenhouse production on reservations.
With the natural and organic food industry growing at a rate of about 23 percent per year, the large opportunities for Native American food producers to put together Native American food product and medicinal product lines became apparent.
Alan Parker, executive director of the institute, brought Alysha Waters, an expert in the organic food industry, on board to direct the project and develop programs. A member of the Anishinaabe people of the Great Lakes area in Michigan, Waters was gung-ho for the project.
"I could see what really needed to be done in the communities," says Waters. "Cutting edge research is indicating that because Native Americans' and other Indigenous people's diets were so rapidly switched to industrialized processed diets, that they have genetically not had the opportunity to evolve.
"Traditional foods really need to come back into play to deal of some of that."
Working with members of the Shoalwater Bay, Nisqually, Skokomish, Squaxin Island and Chehalis tribes, Waters helped design program models for intergenerational gardens, foraging programs, health and nutrition education, support groups, medicinal plant reserves, ecological restoration and the development of Native American food product lines.
"What it really boils down to is the tribes developing their own unique individualized food system," Waters says.
Nutritionists, gardeners and marketing educators from The Evergreen State College are available to help tribes. Waters helps locate grant monies and helps research potential projects.
At the project's next conference August 30, directors and participants in different tribal programs that have developed over the past two years will share their experiences as well as learn from gardening, horticultural and resource management and development experts from all over the state.
Carmen Kalama, community services manager for South Puget Intertribal Planning Agency and a Nisqually tribal member says she is excited about the traditional food program and how it has helped her people culturally.
"For a lot of us, just like in a lot of places, we don't know the language or we know very little of our traditions because they just haven't been carried on," Kalama says. "I would say the same thing for a lot of our traditional foods and plants. Growing your traditional foods and assisting your tribal members in incorporating those things back into their diet ... results in more healthy communities and it ... creates awareness in the youth."
Ben Johnson, director of social services and the summer garden project for the Skokomish tribe, says the tribe's 3 1/2-acre garden is one of the biggest sources of pride on the reservation. Whereas almost all social services programs are subject to a certain amount of criticism from members, the garden is highly prized.
High-risk reservation youths join a master gardener and Skokomish elders in caring for the crops. At harvest time the young people deliver food to elders who are house-bound.
"It gives kids a chance to see the fruits of their labors," Johnson says.
So far the Skokomish intergenerational garden project is supported by grants and the help of a local farmer who brings his tractor to till the soil every spring and fall. Johnson says the extra organic produce will soon be sold at a new reservation store under construction. Profits from sales will be plowed back into youth programs and the garden, bringing the project full circle.
The Skokomish garden is just the kind of organic, self-sustaining food systems project Waters and the rest of her staff design and love to see flourish. It naturally helps tribal members become more aware of nutrition and health; it provides easy access to healthy organic food; it provides education and healthy activity for youth; it adds to the economic well-being of the tribe.
"We have tried to design Native American food system models taking into account the Native American philosophy of the circle of life," says Waters. "The components we developed are to be interconnected. And when the ends of the circle touch each other, you have a whole system in place. With what's happening in Indian Country today, this is what needs to happen."
For more information on food systems models developed by the Native American Food Systems Project call (360) 385-1063.