Even though fall has arrived, the Food Sovereignty initiative is still in full swing at the Zuni Youth Enrichment Project (ZYEP) on the Zuni Indian Reservation in New Mexico. As harvesting continues at family and community gardens across the Pueblo of Zuni, ZYEP’s Food Sovereignty team is busy with in-school learning at Zuni Public Schools, a new after-school program, monthly workshops, and cooking classes.
All of this is made possible with support from the Centers for Disease Control’s Tribal Practices for Wellness in Indian Country, Native American Agriculture Fund, New Mexico Department of Health, Newman’s Own Foundation, and Whole Kids Foundation.
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The Food Sovereignty initiative also incorporates mini-grants for community members and a robust rainwater conservation program that saves thousands of gallons of water during each growing season.
“ZYEP’s Agriculture Committee helps us to center our programming on Zuni’s cultural values and farming traditions, so that each Food Sovereignty experience is the best it can be for Zuni youth,” explained Jessica Quinlan, ZYEP’s Food Sovereignty coordinator.
In-school learning is a vital component. In August, staff members Zachary James and Junior Haloo taught more than 400 pre-K to fifth graders at Shiwi Ts’ana Elementary School all about water.
“During the water lessons, children had opportunities to learn and write about why water is important,” Quinlan said. “They also learned the Zuni words related to water and moisture, such as rain, snow, storms and clouds.”
Starting later this month, the team will return to the elementary school to teach a four-week “Eat Smart to Play Hard” class as part of a school-wide health campaign. Although the class was originally designed for third through fifth grade, ZYEP came up with an innovative solution to accommodate the younger children.
“The class incorporates a ‘Fun Book,' so we adapted it to create a ‘Fun Map’ for the younger children,” Quinlan explained. “It’s more like a game. For example, the little kids are challenged to eat more fruits and vegetables, and to play games like Red Light Green Light in PE.”
Activities like this have a meaningful impact on young people, according to Quinlan. Each activity is a sensory experience, and as the children learn and play, they are creating memories.
“When kids form a positive association, they’re more likely to maintain those healthy behaviors,” she explained. “We’re very lucky to have this relationship with Zuni Public School District. It’s their partnership that makes the program successful, and we are so grateful for that.”
Quinlan and her team also are deeply involved with ZYEP’s new after-school program, which began Aug. 23. Each week, participants have opportunities to help with harvesting crops such as zucchini, tomatoes, Swiss chard, peas, cilantro and onions.
“We always tell the children, ‘We grow, we share, we eat, we save,’” Quinlan said. “Our kids helped us plant, they helped us maintain and love the plants, they’re helping us harvest, and now we’re adding the sharing piece. Soon, we’ll also get them started on seed saving.”
In addition, the ZYEP Food Sovereignty team is continuing to offer monthly Food Sovereignty workshops for community members. Held on the last Wednesday of each month, the workshops have included: caring for plants, transplanting, watering, and shade cloths in June; a Family Garden Show & Tell in July; and harvesting and seeds in August. Up next is seed saving on Wednesday, Sept. 28.
The workshops are interactive. Rather than simply providing necessary gardening supplies, they incorporate multiple learning stations so attendees can engage with staff and members of the ZYEP Agriculture Support team. While the workshops are youth-focused, Quinlan said they’ve proven to be fun for all ages.
“We’ve loved watching how family members of all ages get involved in gardening through their children,” she reflected. “Our kids are wise little farmers. They’re passionate, protective, proud and nurturing. ZYEP empowers them to share all of this. We constantly tell them how inspiring they are, and that they should be proud to be a Shiwi farmer.”
In fact, to further encourage Zuni youth, the Food Sovereignty team offered a new Shiwi Chefs program during the final week of ZYEP’s Summer Camp in July. This four-day mini-camp gave 13 campers opportunities to make plant-based dishes such as burrito bowls, Zoodles with marinara sauce, tacos, enchiladas, watermelon cake with homemade whipped cream, and personal pizzas in special boxes to take home. Brittny Seowtewa and Dylan Solomon led the program, with the support of Kenzi Bowekaty and two Summer Camp counselors.
“We had a team cooking competition on the last day,” Quinlan said. “It was great to see them so pumped up. They all were very confident, and more than 90 percent said they would do it again.” With a laugh, she added, “The kids loved the recipes, and they each got to take home their own little cooking kits!”
Now the team is focused on its fall Family Cook Nights, offered in person and via Zoom. Families learned how to make black bean tacos with red and green taco sauce and fruit salad with honey-lime and mint dressing on Sept. 22. Up next: homemade pizza, fresh garden salad with dressing, and pumpkin parfaits on Oct. 27; and sweet potato and black bean soup with avocado and tortilla strips, cornbread, and baked apples with crumble and ice cream on Nov. 17.
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