Food program expands to meet Native American hunger in Wisconsin tribes


KESHENA – A food assistance program does more than provide healthy, indigenous foods to tribal elders in Wisconsin – it also helps further establish First Nations food sovereignty.

“Our elders have reminded me that we don’t really have sovereignty if we can’t feed ourselves,” said Gary Besaw, director of the Menominee Nation’s Department of Agriculture and Food Systems at a conference. release on the Menominee reservation last Thursday.

The Tribal Elder Food Box Program began as a pilot program last year through a partnership with Feeding Wisconsin, the Intertribal Agriculture Council and three Wisconsin Indigenous nations: Oneida, Menominee and Red Cliff Ojibwe.

It was funded by grants from Feeding America National and the US Department of Agriculture’s Farm Bill.

Federal funding of about $500,000 last year provided about 10,800 boxes of food to tribal elders in three Wisconsin First Nations, said Stephanie Dorfman, executive director of Feeding Wisconsin.

Federal funding of about $1.3 million this year will provide about 25,000 boxes of food for tribal elders in Wisconsin’s 11 federally recognized tribes, she said.

“This program is one of the biggest I’ve ever worked on,” Dorfman said. “This program has become a national model.

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One of the goals of the program is to have most, if not all, of the food produced by local Aboriginal growers and gatherers.

But a problem faced by organizers last year was that indigenous producers were simply not producing enough to meet program requirements.

“There was a big limitation in finding enough native producers,” Dorfman said.

Thus, part of the federal funding this year will go to eight indigenous producers to expand their operations.

Some examples of what the money will go to include buying a canoe for harvesting wild rice in the Northwoods lakes, building chicken coops, and buying farm equipment for crops like corn and potatoes.

Dorfman said last year about 41% of the food used for the program came from Indigenous producers, but that percentage is expected to increase to about 60% this year.

“Food sovereignty is also an economic development opportunity for tribal nations,” she said.

Other foods in the program include bison beef from the Oneida farm, as well as apples and corn porridge meal from the Oneida Nation, lettuce and other products from the Potawatomi Nation of Forest County and the fish from Red Cliff tribal fishermen in Lake Superior.

Marlon Skenandore, Oneida Nation Emergency Food Pantry Manager, shows Red Cliff Fish Co. whitefish fillets included in the Tribal Elder Food Box program.

Besaw said tribal officials are also considering establishing a commercial maple syrup operation on the Menominee reservation early next year.

He said all food in the program is organic and his goal is local sustainability to shorten the food chain and reduce the carbon footprint.

“We want to make sure we have food that is free of herbicides and pesticides,” Besaw said, adding that these chemicals are not only harmful to the body, but also to the environment.

Menominee elder Andy Boivin, who volunteers with the program, said each box provides about four meals for one elder and includes recipes.

“Everything is good for you,” he said.

Boivin said he reflects on how this program helps revive the way ancestors foraged before they were forced to settle on reservations, usually in areas poor for agriculture.

The U.S. government provided low-quality flour at the time, which Native households turned into “fried bread,” but Boivin said it’s high in saturated fat and unhealthy.

Poor food on reservations has led to a health crisis.

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Oneida Nation Emergency Food Pantry Manager Marlon Skenandore shows off a Oneida Nation farm ground buffalo included in the Tribal Elder Food Box program.

Organizers believe the food box program can help fight some of the biggest killers of Aboriginal people, namely heart disease, cancer and diabetes.

Heart disease and cancer each caused 20 percent of Indigenous deaths in Wisconsin, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.

Indigenous people in Wisconsin are also more than three times more likely to die from diabetes than the white population, according to the state agency.

Officials at the press conference acknowledged the need to continue funding the program.

“We are all committed to sustainability and we are making sure to make it a priority with the limited amount of funding we have,” said Menominee Nation President Ron Corn Sr. .”

Frank Vaisvilas is a member of the Report for America body that covers Native American issues in Wisconsin based at the Green Bay Press-Gazette. Contact him at [email protected] or 815-260-2262. Follow him on Twitter at @vaisvilas_frank. You can support his work directly with a tax-deductible donation online at or by check payable to The GroundTruth Project with the subject Report for America Green Bay Press Gazette Campaign. Address: The GroundTruth Project, Lockbox Services, 9450 SW Gemini Drive, PMB 46837, Beaverton, Oregon 97008-7105.


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