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Guest Opinion. Amid staggering food-price inflation and the rollback of pandemic benefits, access to nutritious and affordable food continues to be one of the most significant challenges facing Native American communities across the United States. 

I grew up in the Fort Belknap Indian Community in Montana. At that time, it was a food desert located 76 miles from the nearest affordable grocery store. We lived in poverty, like many families in the community, and my parents worked hard to put food on the table. We didn’t have access to fresh fruits and vegetables. 

Unfortunately, the absence of fresh produce and other nutritious food options has had lasting, generational consequences on my community and on me. Like many Native people — nearly 15% according to the Centers for Disease Control — I was diagnosed with diabetes 

 

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This lived experience fuels my passion for food-justice advocacy that I bring to my new role at Newman’s Own Foundation as the organization’s first Indigenous Communities Officer. Despite our rich cultural heritage and deep connection to the land and food for healing, too many of our families face barriers to access, and too many of our reservations are food deserts.

Addressing the Roots of Food Insecurity

According to the nonprofit Feeding America, approximately 1 in 5 Native Americans are food insecure. Geographic isolation, strained economic opportunities, and inadequate infrastructure are driving factors. Food insecurity is the issue, and it’s rooted in historical injustices and systemic barriers due to intentional policies severing Indigenous peoples from their ancestral ways of eating and reliance on the land. This contributes to cycles of poverty and perpetuates health disparities. People fail to recognize the urgency of this problem. 

Jackie Blackbird

No child should have to worry about where their next meal will come from, or if their food will provide the nutrients needed to thrive. 

Food is so much more than nutrition; it is spiritually connected with our bodies and even our memories. The lack of access to healthy, culturally relevant foods has had a profound impact on the physical and mental well-being of our communities. 

I carry with me the cherished memories of my grandmother's cooking. Her mac and cheese blended large chunks of government cheese, noodles, and milk into a creamy baked perfection. Little did I know that this meal would be a formative lesson in how commodity food programs issued cheap, highly processed foods on our reservations, ultimately contributing to our communities facing physical health problems like diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension.

Newman's Own Foundation is prioritizing Indigenous Food Justice in its philanthropic efforts. I am part of that commitment to bring more grant dollars and funding than ever to tribes and Native-led organizations to address food access and agricultural solutions. The Foundation draws inspiration from its founder, the legendary film star and race car driver Paul Newman. Since the 1990s,  Newman’s Own Foundation has invested resources in Native communities, and we want to deepen that commitment. 

In many ways, the path forward involves a return to our Indigenous roots. This year, Newman's Own Foundation launched a $1 million Food Justice For Kids Prize to bring awareness and funding to tribes, nonprofits, and schools, creating impact across Indigenous Food Justice and Nutrition Education and School Food. In 2023, the Foundation provided over $1.5 million in grants to more than 30 organizations supporting Native people and advancing nutrition efforts. 

Return to Indigenous Cuisine and Food Practices 

Newman’s Own Foundation grantee partners are making cultural shifts happen as they reimagine and revitalize Indigenous cuisine and return to Native food practices. 

James Beard-award-winning chef and restaurateur Sean Sherman continues to make headlines with delicious meals that cut out colonized ingredients like beef, pork, chicken, dairy, wheat flour, and sugar. His nonprofit North American Traditional Food Systems (NATIFS) brings meals to Indigenous schools and families and has been a Newman’s Own Foundation grantee partner since 2021. The organization does so much to support Indigenous food pathways, access, and infrastructure, especially with the Center for Indigenous Education. 

Regenerative Agriculture and Farming 

Food sourcing is a core focus area for many of our grantee partners. I’m most optimistic about the transformative power of regenerative farming and agriculture in addressing the root causes of food insecurity, while also promoting holistic well-being among Indigenous peoples. For more than 40 years, First Nations Development Institute has been uplifting, funding, and supporting Native communities. The Institute is committed to helping Native people reclaim control over their food systems through advocacy, regenerative farming practices, and cultural preservation. 

In Arizona, Nalwoodi Denzhone Community works with Native youth on education programs, food production, and summer camps, all centered around food security and nurturing tribal and non-tribal partnerships. In South Dakota, Makoce Agriculture System is developing the needed infrastructure and resources to create local agriculture and a local food hub for the betterment of the environment and community. These are just a few examples in action across the country, and where there’s alignment, there’s the potential for collaboration and knowledge sharing. 

Our communities often don’t have access to nourishing food, and that has devastating health consequences every day. Addressing food justice in Native communities is an urgent priority, and we need to support innovative solutions like regenerative agriculture and Indigenous food systems to improve access now. 

As a member of the Aaniiih tribe, my name is Itha-Gibi-That, or Walking Woman. I’m committed to walking in my purpose and hope to help build a more connected network for our grantees to learn, develop, and grow. I already see so many synergies and throughlines with their work. I see their progress. To make change happen, we need to tap into the strength and wisdom of each other and unite Indigenous communities to forge food systems that honor our well-being and preserve our cultural legacy. 

Jackie Blackbird is first-ever Indigenous Communities Officer of the Newman’s Own Foundation, where she is committed to broadening and deepening the Foundation’s commitment to Indigenous Food Justice. Blackbird is a member of the Aaniiih tribe of the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in Montana.

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