'Part of the culture is learning to live off the land'Garden beds for schools assist tribe with food sovereignty efforts
By Kevin Abourezk
@Kevin_Abourezk WINNEBAGO, Nebraska – Paula Brown likes the feeling of her hands in the soil, digging and moving the earth to make way for seeds that will become food. On a sweltering recent morning, the 49-year-old Winnebago woman walked to a folding table underneath a canopy in this northwestern Nebraska town and picked up packets of seeds – strawberry, blueberry, onion, peppers, zucchini and tomato – and a raised garden bed in which to plant them. “I already have a garden started, but this is just kind of extra,” she said, smiling. “This is going to be mine.” Brown enjoys the crisp texture of fresh produce and knowing the only person who has handled it is herself, and she plans to get some help planting her new garden. “I’m probably going to have my grandchildren help me plant this,” she said.
Like many reservation communities, Winnebago is considered a fresh produce desert, though it does have stores that sell mostly fast food. The nearest community with fresh produce is nearly a half hour away, and many tribal members struggle to find transportation to get them there to shop. Now the tribe is taking steps to help their citizens grow their own produce. This summer, the tribe is distributing 120 raised garden beds to its members and to local programs such as the tribe’s early childhood program, Educare, and the Winnebago Public Schools’ summer school program. Aaron LaPointe, agricultural business supervisor for Ho-Chunk Farms, said the initiative is designed to help the tribe provide for its own food needs and encourage its members to eat healthier. “If we can get people to start growing their own produce, they’ll start eating produce,” he said. “This is a really small part of the bigger picture that we’re trying to do.”
The Winnebago Tribe recently launched a larger initiative meant to develop agricultural businesses and improve eating habits. The centerpiece of the HoChunk Harvest initiativeoch is Village Market, a 4,644-square-foot indoor farmers’ market 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, Ho-Chunk Community Development Corporation, federal USDA funds and Ho-Chunk Inc., the tribe’s economic development corporation. LaPointe said he expects to see the Village Market built by 2019. It 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. “That could fix that problem that we have as being a fresh produce desert when we have a farmers’ market pavilion there year round,” LaPointe said.
Today, few Winnebagos grow their own food, and many struggle with obesity and diabetes. About 35 percent of the tribe’s 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. The tribe hopes to distribute the 4-by-8-foot garden beds again next year. Along with the garden beds, the tribe is also distributing topsoil, hand tools, seedlings and seeds.
Stuart Fischer, director of Educare Winnebago’s Early Language Initiative, said students in the program will plant beans, tomatoes and cucumbers in the garden beds. He said the Educare program already has a garden and teaches children how to tend to it. “Part of the culture is learning to live off the land and learning to live with the home gardening and the traditional three sisters, corn, beans and squash,” he said. The Educare program will incorporate lessons on healthy eating and traditional foods into the gardening work that children will do, he said. The children will be most excited when they see the first buds from the foods they are growing, he said. “The kids react to something they can see growing, popping out of the ground,” he said.