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As a registered dietitian, Stacy Hammer was always bothered by the offerings of soda pop, chips, and candy at her community’s youth recreation center. An enrolled member of the Lower Sioux Tribe in Minnesota and the tribal diabetes coordinator, she understood the link between foods high in sugars, salts and fats, and the health of tribal members.

Her concern, and the concern of other tribal members, has resulted in the launch of a far-reaching effort at Lower Sioux to increase access to healthier and more traditional foods, and thereby help to reduce some of the diet-related health impacts many tribal members are experiencing.

“We have three significant health disparities – diabetes, obesity-caused arthritis, and high blood pressure. A majority of our elders have these conditions and we are now seeing it more in our children,” says Hammer.

To start the process, the Lower Sioux Community established a health advisory committee consisting of eight members with diverse backgrounds and ages ranging from their 20s to 60s. The committee developed a series of ideas and recommended policy changes to improve access to healthier foods, including indigenous foods.  That framework was approved by the tribal council in September 2016, through a resolution known as “The Lower Sioux Indian Community’s Honoring Little Crow with Healthy and Indigenous Foods Initiative,” which allows for the development of a specific plan designed to improve health among tribal members, and especially children.

“The fact that this is the first generation that won’t outlive their parents if something isn’t done to improve their health really resonated with the community, especially the elders who understand that if you develop diabetes earlier in life, the symptoms will start appearing earlier as well,” says Hammer. “One of the outcomes we are striving for is to reduce the rates of diabetes in children and youth.”

The community’s healthy-eating initiative includes offering financial incentives to food vendors, who participate in the annual pow-wow, to provide healthy options. They are also changing out vending machine offerings at the youth recreation center and in government offices. The vending changes will follow the federal smart-snack guidelines.

Another area the tribe is planning to focus on is to establish criteria for the types of foods served at community gatherings and events, with an emphasis on healthy, well-balanced meals.  That is part of the overall effort to lead by example, normalize healthy eating and make the healthy choice the easy and natural choice.

Another significant focus of the healthy eating initiative will be to return to many of the traditions and values that were part of the tribe’s historic connection to food and the land. They are incorporating the Dakota language into the initiative (the word Wicozani, for example, means good total health and wellness) and revitalizing indigenous foods, which were traditionally lean, high in protein and included a variety natural fruits and vegetables.

Wild rice, an important indigenous food in the region that is high in fiber, vitamins and minerals, will also be one of the focuses and they are working with another Minnesota tribe to provide wild-harvested walleye for the community’s elder food program.

Hammer says that one of the tribe’s dreams, and goals, is to eventually establish their own bison herd as a key food source for the community. Having the herd would allow the tribe to create a local market for bison, once again establishing the important historical food source for Native Americans as part of the Lower Sioux Community’s diet.

“Providing accessibility to a traditional diet, and thereby coming full circle, is a big piece of this initiative that will have a significant impact on members of the Lower Sioux Community,” says Hammer.

Hammer cites Voices for Healthy Kids and the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community for a convening they organized last year in Minnesota as one of the factors that helped energize and empower her and others working on tribal-based, healthy eating initiatives. The convening, which was held in Minneapolis, was attended by 200 Native American leaders and youth advocates, and national philanthropic organizations. It was organized to help advance policy work related to nutrition, food access and health outcomes within Native American communities.

“We were so excited after the convening that we couldn’t stop talking on the drive home about what we were going to do to improve health within the Lower Sioux Community,” says Hammer, who cites the concept of offering pow-wow vendors a registration fee discount for serving healthy foods as coming from youth leaders at the convening.

The convening was the second event in a two-step process to provide opportunities for representatives of the nation’s Native American tribes to work collaboratively on health. The first step brought potential funders together with tribal representatives to help build long-term funding interest. The second brought together tribal advocates, funders and national organizations to help energize and build collaboration for positive change.

“Voices for Healthy Kids traditionally works to be a force for driving change, but in this case we wanted to be a facilitator,” says Aaron Doeppers, senior manager of field support for Voices for Healthy Kids. “So much is currently happening related to health within Native American communities that we saw this as a chance to simply give people the opportunity to come together to network.”

Doeppers says that food systems in the tribal context are unique. There are different challenges between different tribal communities, and as compared to the non-Native communities.  Producing healthy food and making it accessible, for example, has unique roots both prior to and after contact with European cultures. Since food is embedded in culture, revitalizing and incorporating traditional tribal values and practices is critical to achieving and sustaining success.  This means that local Native-led solutions are essential to improving healthy eating.

“There is a lot of momentum taking place, and we need to make sure that everything possible is done to help Native American communities do it their own way and then support them,” he says. “Clearly, Lower Sioux took the energy from the convening, rolled up their sleeves and are getting it done.”

Learn more about Voices For Healthy Kids. 

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