Historic partnership forged to address Native food crisis

Shakopee Mdewakanton to be first tribe to fund national AmeriCorps VISTA project serving 10 Tribal nations; volunteers will help tribes improve food access and nutrition

The Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community (SMSC) announced today its partnership with the Corporation for National and Community Service and the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative (IFAI) to create a cadre of “Native Food Sovereignty Fellows.” The 21 initial fellows will be AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers working in teams in 10 low-resource Native American communities to establish and stabilize food sovereignty efforts, food systems, and tribal economies that build economic opportunities around food and agriculture.

As an initiative of its Seeds of Native Health campaign to improve Native American nutrition and food access, the SMSC is providing a $200,000 gift to fund the cost-share for VISTA members’ living allowance in the first year of the program. This represents the first time in VISTA’s 52-year history in which a tribe is providing funding to deploy VISTA members nationally.

“There is a nutritional health crisis in Indian Country, and its leading cause is the lack of access to healthy, affordable food. This partnership offers a new model to address food access problems at the tribal level,” said SMSC Chairman Charles R. Vig. “Our tribe is excited to support the work of AmeriCorps VISTA and IFAI to recruit and place teams of volunteers with the training, creativity, commitment, and strong work ethic needed to assist tribes in achieving better food access.”

The VISTA members will provide much-needed grassroots capacity combined with national intertribal assistance to reduce the number of poor and food-insecure communities in Indian Country. Preliminary discussions are underway with 10 tribal communities in Alaska, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Washington.

AmeriCorps VISTA, operated by the Corporation for National and Community Service, a federal agency, is the national service program established specifically to help alleviate poverty. Founded as Volunteers in Service to America in 1965 as the domestic version of the Peace Corps, VISTA taps the skills, talents and passion of more than 8,000 Americans annually to build the capacity of nonprofit organizations or local government agencies to carry out programs that tackle poverty.

“We are so proud to support this culturally competent and innovative approach to addressing specific Tribal community needs, by harnessing the organizational support available through our partner, the University of Arkansas’ Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative and the generosity of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux community,” said AmeriCorps VISTA Director Max Finberg.

The Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative at the University of Arkansas School of Law will recruit, train, deploy and supervise the work of these VISTA volunteers. IFAI was created by Dean Stacy Leeds at the University of Arkansas School of Law – the first female Native American law school dean in the country. It focuses on multi-disciplinary research, service and education in support of Native communities. The IFAI director is Janie Simms Hipp, a former advisor to the Secretary of U.S. Department of Agriculture. IFAI’s work encompasses groundbreaking tribal food code development, feeding program analysis, national food systems scans, and related projects. Each year, IFAI also hosts the Leadership Summit for Native Youth in Food and Agriculture, a 10-day educational event to build skills in food systems development and learn how food and agriculture policy impacts their tribal communities. To date, nearly 300 native students have participated in the summit.

“Tribes across the country are struggling to access healthy food and develop their own food systems,” said Dean Leeds. “The SMSC has been a longstanding leader in support of tribal sovereignty and now is the national leader working on improving Native nutritional health. Their support of AmeriCorps VISTA is critical to tackling hunger and food insecurity and building strong Native food systems in Indian Country. This new effort will take these commitments one step further and support the deployment of VISTA recruits within tribal communities to gain on-the-ground experience and assist tribes in their work towards healthy food access.”

About the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community

The Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community is a federally recognized, sovereign Indian tribe located southwest of Minneapolis/St. Paul. Making its top priority to be a good neighbor, the SMSC is one of the top 10 philanthropists in Minnesota and donates more to charity than any other Indian tribe in America. It also focuses on being a strong community partner and a leader in protecting and restoring natural resources.

About Seeds of Native Health

Seeds of Native Health is the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community’s philanthropic campaign to improve Native American nutrition. Launched in 2015, the $5 million campaign has provided grants to local communities and funded research, education, and capacity-building efforts. Partners include the American Heart Association, First Nations Development Institute, MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, the Notah Begay III Foundation, the University of Arkansas School of Law’s Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative, and the University of Minnesota. More information is available at seedsofnativehealth.org/testingvc.

About AmeriCorps VISTA

AmeriCorps VISTA is a program of the Corporation for National and Community Service, a federal agency that engages millions of Americans in service through its AmeriCorps, Senior Corps, and other programs, and leads volunteer initiatives for the nation. Since 1965, AmeriCorps VISTA has been at the forefront of helping communities across America alleviate poverty. Each year, more than 8,000 AmeriCorps VISTA members serve in 3,000 locations across the country, supporting programs that reduce homelessness, improve health services, expand job opportunities, develop financial assets, grow access to affordable food and housing, and expand access to technology for those living in rural and urban areas of poverty across America.

About the University of Arkansas School of Law

Established in 1924, the University of Arkansas School of Law prepares students for success through a challenging curriculum taught by nationally recognized faculty, unique service opportunities and a close-knit community that puts students first. With alumni in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, two territories and 20 countries, it has been ranked among the top 10 “Values in Legal Education” by the National Jurist magazine for four consecutive years and is among the top 46 public law schools, according to U.S. News and World Report.

About the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative

Established in 2013, the University of Arkansas School of Law Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative is the first of its kind nationally, focusing on enhancing food, agriculture, health and wellness, and business and economic development; youth and professional education in food and agriculture; strategic planning and technical assistance, research and publications in the areas of health, nutrition policy, traditional knowledge; financial markets and asset management; and tribal governance, law and policy.