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Reflections from the Road: Conference on Native American Nutrition

NFSN Staff Wednesday, October 09, 2019
By Mackenize Martinez, Partnership Communications Intern

As the Intertribal Agriculture Council Partnership Communications Intern working with National Farm to School Network, I recently had the opportunity to attend and present at the Fourth Annual Conference on Native American Nutrition in Mystic Lake, Minnesota. This is the only conference series in the world devoted to the food and nutrition of Indigenous Peoples. It brings together tribal officials, researchers, practitioners, funders and others to discuss the current state of Indigenous and academic scientific knowledge about Native nutrition, dietary health, and food science, and identify new areas of work. My role in helping co-lead a break out session titled “Farm to School as a Strategy for Advancing Food Sovereignty in Native Communities” with Alena Paisano, NFSN Program Manager,  was certainly a profound learning and networking experience. 

Our session focused on the ways that farm to school can be used as a strategy to decolonize our food system and take back our food sovereignty in Native communities. A key portion of our presentation also shared about the partnership between the National Farm to School Network and the Intertribal Agriculture Council that is helping to advance this work. In addition, NFSN’s recent Seed Change in Native Communities project was also discussed and these successes - which ranged all across Indian Country - were highlighted for audiences to view. In particular, we engaged with audience members from the Mala`ai Kula: Kaua`i Farm-to-School Pilot who participated in Seed Change to support an existing three-year pilot project to create a culturally relevant farm to school program at two Kaua`i schools. On Kaua`i, where 90 percent of food is imported, Mala`ai Kula helped students build a healthier relationship with traditional food systems through school gardens and locally-grown foods in school meals. I enjoyed seeing everyone come together in this space and share their farm to school experiences and knowledge.


Culturally relevant meals served at Kaua`i schools as part of the Mala`ai Kula: Kaua`i Farm-to-School Pilot. 
As a representative on the Native Youth Food Sovereignty Alliance, the national executive board for the Intertribal Agriculture Youth Network, I was very much able to take a first-hand look into the concept of farm to school as a strategy for advancing food sovereignty in Native communities. In order to see how this national partnership is contributing to success in Native communities, it was imperative for me to establish a personal connection and to pinpoint how my passions align in this particular space. Naturally, as I presented to the breakout session, I expressed that my personal connection with farm to school stems from involvement in Intertribal Agriculture Council youth programming. These particular programs are so vital to Native youth because of the emphasis that is placed on developing qualities of leadership, building knowledge of traditional agricultural practices, and being equipped with the skills to take initiative for change back to our communities. While I attended the gathering to help educate others on this, I unequivocally gained a better understanding of how interconnected the roles of National Farm to School Network and Intertribal Agriculture Council are in serving youth through the many forms that farm to school takes. While I have been exposed to the idea of food sovereignty for a few years now, attending this conference gave me a refreshed look into the current efforts of this movement and how essential it is that traditional foods are implemented in school systems serving Native populations. The breakout session that Alena and I led was an effective way to get that particular conversation started.

In addition to helping facilitate our farm to school presentation, I experienced this conference as a first-time attendee. I am still in awe of the energy that this diverse group of individuals carried as we sat in general sessions. Some of my favorite moments from this conference included the keynote speech from Peggy Flanagan, Lieutenant Governor of Minnesota. Hearing from one of the highest-ranking Native American women in history was certainly empowering and hopeful. Lieutenant Governor Flanagan spoke of firsthand childhood experiences that included being a recipient of commodity foods and understanding the reality that individuals in these types of nutrition assistance programs face. Knowing that Native communities have her support in moving forward in the reach for food sovereignty is certainly exciting and opens an even wider expanse of opportunities for youth in farm to school.

In addition, through the keynote presentation of Sean Sherman, founder of The Sioux Chef, I learned a lot about the dynamics of Indigenous food systems and actions being taken to revitalize traditional diets on a larger scale. Farm to school is an approach that can help make this type of food revitalization more accessible to Native children because of the direct role that it plays in a child’s wellbeing and everyday life. Schools are institutions that serve as the foundation of a child’s knowledge, and that knowledge shouldn’t stop in the classroom. It should be carried into the cafeteria, as well. Mr. Sherman’s keynote presentation reminded us that in order to take back our food systems and revitalize those traditional diets, we first need to understand them. Farm to school is a way to bridge that gap between the classroom to the cafeteria and help establish traditional knowledge of food and nutrition at earlier ages. In addition, as a tribal member not currently residing on ancestral land, I enjoyed the discussions on access to traditional foods as an urban Native.

As an intern and someone pursuing post-secondary education in the agricultural science field, this conference was a definite experience of growth in knowledge, character, and leadership. I am looking forward to using this event as a milestone to look back on as my time working between the National Farm to School Network and Intertribal Agriculture Council Partnership continues. 

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