As Inflation Soars, Access to Indigenous Foods Declines
CHICAGO (AP) — Bison tamales with blueberries, harvest salad with mixed greens, creamy carrot and wild rice soup, roast turkey with squash. This contemporary Native American meal, made from the traditional foods of tribes across the United States and prepared with “Ketapanen” – a Menominee expression of love – cost caterer Jessica Pamonicutt $976 to feed a group of 50 people in November last.
Today, it costs him almost double.
Pamonicutt is the executive chef of Chicago-based Native American restaurant company Ketapanen Kitchen. She is a citizen of the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin, but grew up in the Windy City, home to one of the largest urban Indigenous populations in the country, according to the American Indian Center of Chicago.
Her business aims to provide health-conscious meals featuring Native ingredients to Chicago’s Native community and educate people about Native contributions to everyday American cuisine.
One day, she aims to buy all ingredients from Indigenous suppliers and provide her community with affordable access to healthy Indigenous foods, “but all this inflation has slowed that down,” she said.
US inflation hit a new four-decade high in June, crushing household budgets with painfully high prices for gas, food and rent.
Traditional Native foods — like wild rice, bison, fresh vegetables and fruits in the Midwest — are often unavailable or too expensive for Native families in urban areas like Chicago, and the recent spike in inflation has propelled these foods even more out of reach.
The risk of disease compounds the problem: a healthy diet is key to fighting diabetes, which affects Native Americans at the highest rate of any ethnic group in the United States.
“There are many benefits to eating traditional Native foods,” said Jessica Thurin, registered dietitian at the Native American Community Clinic in Minneapolis. “The body knows exactly how to process and use this food. These foods are natural to the Earth.
But many of the people the clinic serves are low-income and don’t have the luxury of choosing where their food comes from. Food deserts – areas where access to a variety of healthy, affordable foods is limited – are more likely to exist in places with higher poverty rates and concentrations of minority populations.
“In these situations, healthy food options are limited, let alone limited traditional food options,” Thurin said.
In addition to health benefits, traditional foods have significant cultural and emotional value.
“It’s just comfort,” said Danielle Lucas, a 39-year-old descendant of the Sicangu Lakota people of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in South Dakota.
Lucas’ mother, Evelyn Red Lodge, said she hasn’t made traditional Great Plains dishes, like wojapi berry sauce or stew, since May because prices for key ingredients – berries and meat – soared.
Pamonicutt, too, is feeling the pinch. Between last winter and this spring, the price of bison went from $13.99 to $23.99 a pound.
Shipping costs are so high that the chef said it’s often cheaper to drive hundreds of miles to buy ingredients, even with soaring gas prices. She even had to set up her own suppliers: the 45-year-old’s parents now grow crops for her company on their Wisconsin property near the Illinois border.
Gina Roxas, program coordinator at the Trickster Cultural Center in Schaumburg, Ill., a suburb of Chicago, also agreed to grow native foods to help the chef keep costs down.
When a bag of wild rice costs $20, “you end up going to a fast food restaurant instead to feed your family,” Roxas said.
More than 70% of Native Americans reside in urban areas – the result of decades of federal policies pushing families off reservations and assimilating into American society.
Dorene Wiese, executive director of the Chicago-based American Indian Association of Illinois, said members of her community should prioritize rent payments over splurging on healthy, traditional foods. .
Even though specialty chefs like Pamonicutt aim to feed their own communities, the cost of its high-end restaurant service is out of the price range for many urban natives. His meals end up feeding mostly non-Indigenous audiences at museums or cultural events that can foot the bill, said Wiese, a citizen of the Minnesota White Earth Band of Ojibwe Indians.
“There really is a shortage of native foods in the area,” she says, but the problem isn’t unique to Chicago.
Dana Thompson, co-owner of The Sioux Chef and executive director of a Minneapolis Indigenous food nonprofit, is another Indigenous businesswoman working to expand her urban community’s access to food. traditional locals like lake fish, wild rice and wild greens amid soaring food prices.
Thompson, of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate and Mdewakanton Dakota peoples, said inflation “is having a real impact on the food systems we have here,” which include dozens of indigenous, local and organic food producers.
At Owamni, an award-winning Indigenous restaurant under The Sioux Chef, ingredients like Labrador tea — which grows wild in northern Minnesota — have been particularly hard to come by this year, Thompson said.
When an ingredient isn’t always available or affordable, she changes the menu.
“Being fluid and resilient is what we’re used to,” Thompson said. “It’s like the history of indigeneity in North America.”
Inflation is also hampering efforts by the American Indian Center of Chicago to improve food security. Executive Director Melodi Serna, of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians and Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, said current prices for the food boxes they distribute — with traditional Midwestern foods like fish, bison, venison, dairy and produce – are “astronomical. ”
“While I could have been able to supply maybe 100 boxes, now we can only supply 50,” Serna said.
For Emmie King, 57, a Chicago resident and citizen of the Navajo Nation, getting the fresh ingredients she grew up with in New Mexico is much harder in the city, especially with inflation eating away at her budget.
She finds ways to stretch the food she buys so it lasts longer, buying meat in bulk and freezing small portions to add to stews later. “I get what I need, rather than what I want,” she said.
But King got a taste of home at an Aug. 3 luncheon at the American Indian Center in Chicago, where twenty seniors gathered to enjoy turkey tamales with cranberry-infused masa, Spanish rice with quinoa , an elote pasta salad with chickpea noodles and glasses of cold lemonade.
The mastermind behind the meal was Pamonicutt herself, sharing her take on Southwestern and northern Indigenous food traditions. By volunteering at dinners for elders and developing a food education program, the chef continues to increase access to healthy indigenous foods in her community.
“I want kids to learn where these foods come from,” the chef said. “This whole act of taking care of your food… thanking it, understanding that it was grown to help us survive.”