Grassroots Lakota Gardening Initiative feeds low-income families
If you live in one of the rural communities on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, you probably don’t go shopping every day.
If you live in Porcupine, South Dakota, drive an hour and a half to either Rapid City or Chadron, Nebraska, but you’ll need to be well-equipped for the trip.
That means you can afford the gas and your car can afford the normal wear and tear. If you live further out in the country, your tires will need to endure poorly maintained gravel roads for at least part of the journey.
Chance Weston, a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe, says these are real concerns for the average Pine Ridge resident.
“We urgently need to change that,” he adds.
That’s not to say there’s no food for sale anywhere on the reservation. But there’s a problem with finding good food, Weston said.
Almost all of Pine Ridge is considered a “food desert,” a variable term for an area where a significant number of residents do not have easy access to a supermarket or grocery store, according to the US Department of Agriculture.
The Lakota Food Sovereignty Coalition is the Oglala Lakota’s response to food insecurity. Founded in 2007, the community-focused group gives tribal members the tools to grow their own food.
The coalition is part of a broader gardening initiative supported by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture and state universities to help people on Pine Ridge, Rosebud and Cheyenne River reservations take back control of their health — an important one Role in maintaining tribal sovereignty.
A below-average shopping situation
Some families in rural America make weekly or bi-weekly shopping trips to the nearest town, either because there is no supermarket in town or to save money at a cheaper urban grocer.
People on the reservation are making a similar journey, but Weston says circumstances are far from ideal.
Jackson and Bennett counties, which make up the eastern half of the reservation, are considered “low-income census areas” where the majority of residents live more than 10 miles from their shops and have either a poverty rate above 20% or the middle Family income is less than 80% of the country or metro area.
Most reservations in South Dakota, with the exception of portions of the Pine Ridge, Yankton, and Lake Traverse reservations, also fall under the low-income category.
In addition, most of Oglala Lakota County is designated as a “low vehicle access tract”. a significant portion of residents live more than 20 miles from a convenience store on west Pine Ridge. The Rosebud Indian Reservation is considered a low-income and inaccessible area.
The Pine Ridge Reservation has three grocery stores: one in Sharps Corner, one in Kyle, and one in the town of Pine Ridge proper, and is approximately 43 times the size of Sioux Falls, the state’s largest and most populous city.
By comparison, Minnehaha County’s county seat is 79.93 square miles and has dozens of grocery stores and supermarkets within minutes of each other.
On Pine Ridge, food is expensive without the premium quality.
“The selection is not very big. [Reservation stores] have a lot of processed products that are very high in carbohydrates and sugars and are very limited in terms of healthy products,” says Weston.
Weston draws a picture of what that looks like.
“You can fill a shopping cart‘s booster seat with produce and the actual shopping cart with junk food, and they would probably cost the same,” he said.
Of the three reservation options, the city of Pine Ridge offers the widest selection of goods, but the fruits and vegetables at Wet Wall are typically of lower quality than what city stores offer, Weston says.
According to Weston, Pine Ridge residents, who are sparsely spread across the reservation — about five people per square mile — have to leave the reservation to buy decent, healthy food that is becoming less and less affordable due to inflation.
For families in the countryside, this means a financial burden: the trip is at most a weekly affair, with groceries having to be bought in large quantities. This can prove particularly expensive for people from Pine Ridge, where per capita income is among the lowest in the nation.
Bad weather can be another setback, leaving roads impassable and forcing families to stay home and live on what little they already have.
The Oglala Oasis
Food initiatives are a collaborative response to the problem of limited access to food.
The Lakota Food Sovereignty Coalition laid the groundwork, so to speak, in 2008 when the group started a small garden in their affordable grassroots community.
Since then, the project has slowly developed into a full farm, equipped with a chicken farm, an orchard and a vegetable garden.
Between the nearly 500 chickens that lay 26 dozen eggs a day and the 100 trees that produce apple cherries, plums and buffalo berries, there’s enough food to feed 800 people year-round, says Weston, who is also the initiative’s director .
A geothermal greenhouse will grow common vegetables like onions and tomatoes all summer, and funds have been earmarked for the construction of a community kitchen to be built this fall.
“We are trying to provide access to healthy food, but also at a lower price [cost]’ says West.
While their total harvest feeds only a fraction of the population, it remains an oasis where access to food is scarce.
restoration of the landscape
“We want to leave this country better than we found it,” Weston said in a phone call, citing his grandfather. During our interview, his voice drowned out the sound of digitally rendered chickens cackling and crowing.
It is important to Weston that every part of what they harvest on their farm is used in some way.
To this end, the members of the initiative use rotational grazing, a grazing system, to achieve this. The 1.5 hectare poultry farm is divided into several “paddocks” or enclosures.
The hens will feed on plants in one pen, supplemented with some birdseed and cover crops before moving on to the next. Your leftover manure fertilizes the remaining flora, which grows a little better each cycle.
Weston says it is extraordinarily difficult to farm on Pine Ridge. Most of the soil is clay, which retains moisture very well, but rarely shares that moisture with crops and plants.
“We’re trying to improve things that have been neglected for a really long time,” says Weston. He adds that in the past the land was overgrazed by cattle, stressing the natural grasses to the point where the land eventually became unsuitable for agriculture.
From Sahara to Sovereign
The Lakota Food Sovereignty Initiative encompasses aspects of the Lakota way of life. Initiative members teach people in the community how to independently grow their own food, which Weston describes as “liberating.”
“Our primary purpose is to empower people,” says Weston. “Regenerative food systems … improve health and create wealth.”
Education is also ingrained in their efforts: community members, as well as children attending Lakota Immersion Montessori classes, are taught the fundamentals of gardening entirely in the Lakota language.
The initiative is funded primarily through grants, and Sicangu Lakota on the Rosebud Indian Reservation and people on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation also have successful gardening initiatives.