A statue representing one of the 12 clans of the Winnebago Tribe at the Ho-Chunk Village development on the Winnebago Reservation in Nebraska. Photo: Ho-Chunk Community Development Corporation
Health | National

Winnebago Tribe launches HoChunk Harvest food sovereignty project




Tribal citizens urged to reconnect with their foods

'It’s all about will power and choices'
By Kevin Abourezk
@Kevin_Abourezk

Terry Medina doesn’t blame anyone for his condition, except himself.

At the age of 63, he’s struggled with diabetes for nearly 7 years. The probation officer said it’s not easy to eat right living on the Winnebago Reservation.

There are feasts, memorial dinners and community gatherings where corn soup, fry bread and cake are often on the menu.

“Indian people are killing themselves with what they eat,” he said. “We’re eating fry bread, all sorts of things we’re not supposed to.”

But he’s fighting back.

He’s quit diet sodas and is down to 184 pounds.

“It’s all about will power and choices,” he said. “I’ve tried to learn to eat healthy.”

His community is fighting back, too.

A new initiative on the reservation is seeking to improve the health of residents in the northeast Nebraska community.

A coalition of tribal and business enterprises is seeking to encourage Winnebago citizens to grow their own gardens and develop agricultural businesses. The Ho-Chunk Community Development Corporation (HCCDC) is spearheading the project.

The nonprofit – which is affiliated with the Winnebago Tribe – won a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for planning a food sovereignty project. With that planning now completed, representatives for the tribal council, Ho-Chunk Inc., the Little Priest Community College and tribal health department have begun work on the first projects related to the effort, which is being called HoChunk Harvest.

“This is all part of the tribal council’s vision for how to meet the needs of tribal members best, as far as food and nutrition needs and just be able to build their self-reliance and sovereignty,” said Brian Mathers, executive director of HCCDC.

Artist's rendering of the Village Market, an indoor farmers market that's a key component of the HoChunk Harvest initiative on the Winnebago Reservation in Nebraska. Courtesy image

HCCDC now plans to apply for $231,000 in USDA funding to pay for half of the cost of the HoChunk Harvest 2-year initiative. The effort will include the purchase and distribution of 60 raised garden beds each year for 2 years. Summer youth workers will install the 4-by-8-foot beds and provide topsoil, hand tools, seedlings and seeds.

Ho-Chunk Farms will help create compost for the topsoil to be used in the gardening beds and provide gardening and farming education to potential growers, Mathers said.

The goal is to reconnect the Winnebago people to the food they eat, said Ann Marie Bledsoe-Downes, vice president of community impact and engagement for Ho-Chunk Inc., the tribe’s economic development corporation. Ho-Chunk Inc. owns Indianz.Com, though the website is not involved in HoChunk Harvest or with the HCCDC.

“Once you grow it, you’re interested in cooking it and cooking it healthy,” she said. “It’s very much a progression and creating a comfortable entry point into making sure we all have individual responsibility for making sure we can feed ourselves and making healthy food.”

You see, life wasn’t always this way for the Winnebago people.

They were once farmers and hunters. They planted corn, beans and squash. They hunted deer and buffalo and fished.

But like so many tribal people, their lifestyles changed dramatically after they were forced onto reservations and had to assimilate to western culture, a shift that led to the tribe losings its connection to the land.

Today, few Winnebagos grow their own food, and many struggle with obesity and diabetes.

Nearly 32 percent of the tribe’s children age 0 to 4 are considered obese and an additional 16 percent are overweight. About 35 percent of elementary students are obese and another 19 percent are overweight.

And almost 39 percent of the tribe’s high school age youth are considered obese, while another 17 percent are overweight.

Grain storage bins at Ho-Chunk Farms on the Winnebago Reservation in Nebraska. Photo: Ho-Chunk Farms

The centerpiece of the HoChunk Harvest initiative is Village Market, a 4,644-square-foot indoor farmers that will be constructed in the Ho-Chunk Village development adjacent to Nebraska Highway 77. It will be built on a concrete slab and will have space for 10 indoor vendors and 10 exterior vendors.

The more than $265,000 structure will be paid for through a tribal community development fund, HCCDC and Ho-Chunk Inc., as well as USDA funds.

Mathers said he hopes to see the Village Market built by 2019, though that timeline could be shortened should HCCDC receive significant USDA funding sooner than expected.

The Village Market will provide vendors – many of whom currently set up along roadsides in Winnebago and sell everything from sweet corn and popcorn to jewelry and crafts – greater access to customers.

“Just having the space becomes this catalyst for making different choices, whether it be around food or arts or crafts or what I do with my Saturday,” Bledsoe-Downes said.

Growers won’t be expected to pay to utilize space in the Village Market, though they will be asked to donate unsold produce at the end of each market day for use by Senior Meals, WIC, Kids Café and local Boys and Girls Club food programs.

Lance Morgan, a citizen of the Winnebago Tribe, serves as president and CEO of Ho-Chunk Inc., the tribe's economic development corporation. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

Lance Morgan, president and CEO of Ho-Chunk Inc., said he hopes the Village Market will encourage local producers to establish food-related businesses and inspire entrepreneurship among his people. He said he also hopes it will provide better access to affordable, fresh foods.

“It just ties a lot of things together,” he said.

Mathers said HCCDC is working with the Nebraska Department of Economic Development to provide loans to tribal citizens interested in starting small businesses and expects to be able to offer up to $50,000 in loans for food-related businesses.

A community task force – the Winnebago Food Security Task Force – helped plan the HoChunk Harvest initiative and will continue to develop other projects as part of the overall effort to help the Winnebago Tribe produce its own foods. Among those projects will be an effort to convert tribal land now leased to non-tribal producers to food production for humans and organic farming, Mathers said.

He said the tribe also is considering year-round, indoor growing initiatives through Ho-Chunk Farms, Mathers said.

“There are many things that have to happen to move the community toward true food sovereignty and true food self-reliance,” he said. “We have to kind of start with some easier things and build some momentum toward those things that will take a bigger capital investment or just more time and effort to get them up and running.” Bledsoe-Downes said she is hopeful HoChunk Harvest can help turn the tide against the problems of obesity and diabetes that have plagued the tribe by encouraging healthier eating habits … and reminding the Winnebago people who they were.

“It’s kind of a ‘if you build it, they will come’ approach to things,” she said. “It’s got a lot of positive community aspects to it.”