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.