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Keeping indigenous food knowledge alive with farm to school

NFSN Staff Tuesday, October 27, 2015
This week's Farm to School Month blogs are sponsored by the Orfalea Foundation School Food Initiative, which has empowered campus food service operations to serve fresh, healthy school meals; installed school gardens; launched food literacy programs; and assisted school districts in their aspirations to become centers of health and wellness. The Orfalea Foundation applauds the efforts of National Farm to School Network and is proud to be a sponsor of Farm to School Month. 

 Photo Credit: FoodCorps
By FoodCorps, with featured writing from Service Member Will Conway 
From medicinal plants to preparation of traditional meals, food has always been central to the cultural teachings of Native peoples in North America. But today, Native communities experience some of the highest incidence of type 2 diabetes among children and young adults, as well the lowest access to fresh foods. That’s why from North Carolina to Arizona, and Oregon to the Hawaiian islands, FoodCorps and its local partners are committed to helping to reverse those trends and supporting efforts to celebrate and expand indigenous food knowledge.

For Native communities, the principles of farm to school make sense, but they’re not new. As FoodCorps Arizona Service Member Will Conway explains: “Prior to the existence of schools, indigenous elders educated Native youth about agricultural practices and food. As the modern world encroaches on the traditions of Native people, what is now called ‘farm to school’ has become a means for reclaiming Native identity in Native communities. Educating Native youth about the sacred importance of food to their culture has become a weapon in the fight against the damaging impacts of the food system, which has disproportionally affected Native Americans.”

In Arizona alone, FoodCorps serves the Navajo, Tohono O’odham, and Apache tribes. On Navajo Nation, Tyrone Thompson is serving a second year with the STAR School, where he is bringing his experience as a farmer in the community to connect and engage kids with fresh, healthy food. 

“Schools are the biggest institution that feeds people in our community,” Tyrone explains. So he’s helping his student take part in the entire process of bringing food from soil to tray. They plant seeds, tend to growing plants on the school farm, harvest produce, and deliver vegetables to the school’s cafeteria, where they’re used in the school lunch program. For the STAR school, farm to school means going straight from the school garden through the doors of the cafeteria!

But getting fresh foods into students’ mouths is just one piece of farm to school in Native communities. Reconnecting kids with indigenous foods, culture and traditions is an important piece of the equation. “We connect with the elders,” Tyrone explains, “because that’s where most of the indigenous knowledge is held.” 

 
Students plants native corn in Painted Desert, Arizona (Photo Credit: FoodCrops) 
In Tuba City, Will Conway works with Navajo farmers and elders to help connect kids to traditional food knowledge. They’ve set up an education plot at the community farm where the farmers and elders can teach kids about traditional plants and growing methods. “Children ranging from pre-k to 6th grade are planting native corn, melons, and beans using traditional tools,” he explains. “The elder recently taught the youth the role of corn in the Hopi creation story and the importance of preserving the corn seeds native to Tuba City.” 

And in White River, FoodCorps service member Maya Harjo is helping students from the White Mountain Apache Tribe think about food as a powerful economic tool for the community. She teamed up with the Arrowhead Business Group Camp for cooking challenge where students had 30 minutes to create a unique food product that incorporated traditional foods, as well as a sale pitch that connected the product to their tribal community. The challenge was an entertaining jumping-off point for getting students to think about food as a means of strengthening the community's economic independence and bolstering traditional food ways. 

This hands-on food education is giving students in Native communities an opportunity to rekindle their connection with Native heritage, as well as empowering them to make healthy food choices that improve health outcomes. Tapping into these roots helps gives farm to school in these communities staying power.

“Indigenous knowledge is being lost,” says Tyrone, “but it’s something we are able to keep alive through food.”


To read more about healthy habits and heritage in native communities, visit the FoodCorps Arizona blog.

Farm to School taking root in Indian Country

NFSN Staff Monday, October 13, 2014

Guest post by Alena Paisano, Farm to Table New Mexico

Farm to Table New Mexico serves as the Southwest Regional Lead Agency for the National Farm to School Network. Each of our regional lead agencies will be contributing blog posts during Farm to School Month. 


Randy Chatto 

Randy Chatto from the community of Ramah, New Mexico has been working with a team of community members on the “Empowering Ramah Navajos to Eat Healthy” project (ERNEH) for more than two years. This project, funded by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), is the first step in developing a community-wide effort to grow fresh food for community families and the school.

The goal of the ERNEH project is to provide fresh and locally grown food for community families and for students and staff with the K-12 Pine Hill School. The food that is being brought to the school and used in meals and celebrations are traditional Navajo foods such as Navajo gray Hubbard squash, Navajo yellow corn, and blue corn. There are now over 50 family gardens spread across the community that provide local, fresh and traditional healthy foods.  

Randy has undoubtedly been a leader in the project: He designed the small grow boxes that use gravity-fed irrigation systems, went door-to-door to get people on board,  and even supports each individual garden with education and training. Randy is also working with external partners such as the National Farm to School Network (NFSN) to share best practices with other Native groups and help build project sustainability. He attended the National Farm to Cafeteria Conference this past April as a participant in NFSN's Native Nations convening and will continue to work with regional partners throughout this year.

The Ramah Navajo community is a very isolated, rural, desert-like community that lacks sufficient good growing soil and adequate precipitation to easily grow fresh vegetables and fruits. Another challenge Randy sees is that folks have had to learn how to garden again, as they used to, instead of relying solely on retail markets that are 50-60 miles away.

At its core, ERNEH is about community transformation - working with young children, families and elders to revitalize a local and traditional food system for the Ramah Navajo people. 

AN INTERVIEW WITH MR. RANDY CHATTO (2012)

What’s your favorite thing about being involved in your traditional foods project?      
Being a part of history: “Traditional foods” is probably one of the most important elements in any Native American/Alaskan Native’s culture. In that culture there is someone keeping that practice moving forward, keeping it alive through sowing, hunting, gathering, reaping and harvesting. You are a key component to keeping your land and your people healthy, informed, encouraged and appreciated. I feel very fortunate and blessed to know that I, in some way, am helping my people.

How has this project impacted your community?  
Many of our community members are excited to take part in a program that encourages them to plant, harvest and prepare their own traditional plant foods. Many of our families and even departments within our organization are beginning to eat healthy as they are seeing and realizing the significance of the re-introduction of family gardens, community gardens and dry land farming.   

What are your plans to sustain this project?  
This project is not a temporary spark for this community but a lifestyle deeply rooted in our Diné culture. We must continue this effort to eat healthy and keep moving. We must all lend a hand and be part of a voice in keeping our people healthy. We are our own resource, and we need to continue to tap into it. The spirit of self sufficiency has always been with us but we have to carry on that community action. It’s about raising champions in every facet of our peoples’ lives: in body, in mind and in spirit!    

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