NORTHRIDGE, California — Chefs Sean Sherman and Dana Thompson, collectively known as The Sioux Chef, created the Minneapolis-based indigenous nonprofit, North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems (NāTIFS). The chefs created it to respond to the economic and health crises faced by Indigenous communities by reestablishing Native foodways. NāTIFS opened the first Indigenous Food Lab in Minneapolis in August 2020 with the vision of eventually expanding to multiple tribally operated locations across North America. The Indigenous Food Lab is a restaurant, education and training center. The work of NāTIFS highlights the intersections between Indigenous identity, food sovereignty and fighting food insecurity.
Economic and Health Crises in Native Communities
Food insecurity disproportionately affects Native American communities. An estimated one in four Native Americans experiences food insecurity in comparison to one in nine people nationally. According to a study conducted prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, 92% of households within Native American tribes located in northern California and southern Oregon lacked sufficient access to “good, healthy and culturally appropriate food.” While solutions exist within the current food system, such as the federally funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), conversations surrounding food sovereignty seek to challenge this system and revitalize traditional foodways that state and federal governments have long overlooked.
Diet-related diseases are more prevalent in Native American communities due to a lack of access to healthy and culturally appropriate foods. As colonization and industrialization disrupted Indigenous food systems, the health outcomes of Native peoples worsened. In many isolated, rural Native American communities, there are few grocery stores. The most affordable and accessible food options are processed foods high in sugar and fat from fast-food restaurants and convenience stores.
Although there are federal programs in place to increase access to healthy food options in Native American communities, such as the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR), the programs fall short in providing a balanced diet and supporting Native American food systems. According to recent data from the CDC, Native American adolescents are 30% more likely to be obese than non-Hispanic white Americans. Furthermore, Native American adults are 50% more likely to be obese in comparison to non-Hispanic white Americans.
The Indigenous Food Lab
Through the Indigenous Food Lab, NāTIFS responds to these economic and health crises in a holistic manner. Armando Medinaceli spoke with The Borgen Project, explaining that NāTIFS tries to create materials to show how food is a component of culture and how Indigenous foodways are holistic. Indigenous foodways comprise the food, the nutritional value, the medicinal value and the spiritual connection that Indigenous people share with their food and environment.
Medinaceli uses his background in ethnobiology to develop materials that support the work of the Indigenous Food Lab. One example is a series of booklets intended to teach young children about ingredients native to North America. Each booklet teaches children about the different varieties of these ingredients that exist, their Indigenous names and their health benefits. Ultimately, Medinaceli hopes that educational materials like the booklets will inspire children and adults alike to be curious about where their food comes from.
Supporting Native American Producers
It is extremely important to NāTIFS that the food for the Indigenous Food Lab is sourced locally. Much of its food comes from producers from Minnesota and neighboring states like Wisconsin. NāTIFS tries to specifically source from Native American producers as much as possible. As a relatively new organization, many of these negotiations with local producers are still ongoing. However, NāTIFS recently established a partnership with another Minneapolis-based Indigenous nonprofit called Dream of Wild Health. Dream of Wild Health will soon start to give the Indigenous Food Lab kitchen some of the produce from the farm where it hosts many of its youth programs.
The Indigenous Food Lab will go beyond simply teaching people about Indigenous ingredients and how to prepare them. Students will also learn skills that will help them build their careers. Medinaceli explains that the Lab will not just train people in cooking but will also train them on other components such as how to develop a nonprofit, how to open a business or restaurant and how to run these enterprises.
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused NāTIFS to pause many of its plans to expand the Indigenous Food Lab. After receiving funding and partnering with individuals and organizations in the community, the Indigenous Food Lab began producing 300 to 400 meals per day to distribute to individuals in need in Minnesota. NāTIFS also partnered with nine of 11 tribes in Minnesota to help their elders provide food to their communities.
Between November 2020 and February 2021, the Indigenous Food Lab produced 10,000 meals per week for these tribal communities. Medinaceli feels good about the work that the Indigenous Food Lab does right now “because there are a lot of people that don’t have access to food and we’re feeding them something very good, very healthy and also culturally appropriate.”
The Vision Moving Forward
The Indigenous Food Lab is open to anyone as many of the volunteers do not identify as Native American. The Indigenous Food Lab is an inclusive place that everyone can be part of regardless of background, beliefs or traditions. Overall, NāTIFS aims to ignite sustainable economic empowerment and prosperity in tribal areas through a reinvented North American food system that also prioritizes the health consequences of Indigenous inequality and injustice.
– Sydney Thiroux