August 29, 2017

Native Hunger, Native Advocacy

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Just a few short weeks ago, I shared a table with nearly 150 Native teens. These are young people who see struggle and deprivation, sometimes at their own tables, and have joined the fight to intrinsically change how their communities interact with food. 

As the Program Manager for MAZON’s Rural and Remote work, I had the rare and unique honor of bringing MAZON’s This is Hunger (TIH) mobile exhibit to these young leaders from 76 tribes across the country, many of whom will be among the next generation of food and agriculture leaders in Indian Country. It makes me so proud to see these bright young people engage with the issue of hunger, and furthers my respect and appreciation for MAZON’s partners at the University of Arkansas School of Law in Fayetteville, who created the “Native Youth for Food and Agriculture Summit.”

Native American Hunger Infographic 1

On Saturday morning, the group enjoyed Fayetteville’s Farmer’s Market in the historic town square, some students never having been to a farmer’s market before. The beautiful abundance of the market’s fresh summer fruits and vegetables, juxtaposed with TIH’s stories of scarcity, did not escape us.

 Groups of 30 teens peeled off from the market to join the TIH program. Seated around a communal table, the teens heard stories from a few of the 42 million Americans who struggle with hunger. One by one, they were introduced to Bill, Marilyn, Dylan, Whitney, Mark, and Blanca, their personal stories knit together to reveal a larger tapestry of who is hungry in America and why. 

The students learned that Marilyn is a member of the Oglala Sioux tribe, and lives just outside the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. In many tribal communities, elders are respected for their wisdom and experience, and pass down their teachings to the younger generation. Marilyn shared that she struggles to choose between buying medicine and food because she can’t afford both, and finds the senior meal program in her community a blessing. As an elder from Indian Country, Marilyn models to these young people how powerful it is to share your story, and how education is a tool to create change.    

I was especially struck by these students’ passion; some of them were moved to tears by the stories they heard. Several approached me after the show to share their reactions to the program and their experience with hunger:

“I think back to when my cousins moved in with me. They were found in their house with no food and they were alone, eating nothing for a few days at a time.  So, this is a big issue.” – Robert

“My sister and I have been asking our tribe to build a garden, and they finally gave us a plot of land.  We can now give our children fresh food.” – Rachel

“We must realize that hunger can happen to anyone.  Be the change is essential.  As a child of divorced parents with mental illness, I am the only child who has not been on a government assistance program.  We were a mid-upper income family who lived in a nice house, and had to sell our furniture and toys, and often had the lights and phone cut off.  I am now part of this change and will be forever.” – Stephany

The following Monday evening, I was honored to attend their graduation ceremony, where each teen received personal recognition from their Summit student leader.

Janie Hipp, director at the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative at the University of Arkansas School of Law, wrote to me soon after I returned home to say that one of the Native Hawaiian students at the Summit had already started an anti-hunger program in their community! (Stay tuned for more details and a future blog post.)

Another student from the Choctaw Nation living in California reached out to us directly to ask about ways he might get more involved in ending hunger in Indian Country. 

The experience was a reminder of why MAZON partners with the University of Arkansas School of Law and other Native organizations to advocate for Native-led efforts to increase food security and food sovereignty in Indian Country. Hunger in Native American communities is prevalent and staggering, but the commitment of these youth advocates give us hope for a better future.

Click here to watch the video from University of Arkansas School of Law IFAI in TIH truck, July 22, 2017, with Native youth students. 

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