Access to healthy food is a social justice and public health issue. But it is a concern that receives far less attention than other systemic forms of inequity — like police misconduct or mass incarceration — despite the ways food insecurity wreaks havoc on the bodies of vulnerable populations in the U.S.
Money, proximity to grocery stores and even the recipes used to prepare food are often determinants for lower or higher rates of mortality, especially in urban and rural areas where access to healthy food is limited — areas often referenced as food deserts. Food security and access is a critical social justice issue among Native American communities, in particular, and it's an issue some activists are confronting in innovative ways.
Native American health outcomes may be shaped by food access: The population of American Indians and Alaska Natives is an estimated 3.7 million, according to the Indian Health Service's division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. And yet, Native Americans have a life expectancy that is 4.2 years fewer than all racial groups in the U.S.
Among Native Americans, heart diseases, malignant neoplasm (various forms of cancer), unintentional injuries and chronic lower respiratory diseases are leading causes of death, according to the IHS. American Indian and Native Alaskan adults also face higher rates of obesity than Caucasians, according to the Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Minority Health. In addition, 16.1% of indigenous people suffer from Type II diabetes, according to the American Diabetes Association.
Children are also impacted. Native American children have nearly "twice the levels of food insecurity, obesity, and Type II diabetes, relative to the averages for all U.S. children of similar ages" according to a 2012 report by Mathematica Policy Research. The food and water Native Americans have access to, or not, may play a critical role in their ability to live full and healthy lives.
"Access to clean drinking water is intimately tied to food insecurity, especially for rural areas," Taté Walker, Mniconjou Lakota, editor of Native Peoples magazine, told Mic. "The Navajo Nation, for instance, was the recipient of the devastating Colorado mine spill few months ago and is still experiencing fallout from that, yet the national conversation is centered on Flint. If you don't have water, you're dead."
Historical displacement of Native peoples shifted indigenous ways of life: The issues impacting Native Americans' food security and health outcomes are not novel consequences of inequity. There's a historical context to these longstanding problems, especially among those living on or near the approximately 326 reservations and other tribal lands in the U.S.
The Indian Removal Act of 1830 — a law passed by Congress under President Andrew Jackson — authorized the displacement of Indian tribes from their indigenous homelands. Native Americans were forced to move to federally controlled territories west of the Mississippi River. "Displacing Natives from land and food sources was a purposeful act of genocide by the U.S. government," Walker told Mic.
The isolation extended far beyond geographical boundaries, it also meant that Native Americans were separated from the plant life, vegetables, livestock and wild animals indigenous to their diets and food traditions. And beyond Native American lives, knowledge of traditional foods were suppressed as well.
Sources of food that followed the spread of processed foods, or commodities, distributed by the government, have become unhealthy staples today. Kai Ryssdal, host and senior editor of Marketplace, estimates processed foods comprise 70% of what most people consume in the U.S.
"Those original commodities were not healthy for the people," Fran Miller, community nutritionist for the Suquamish Tribe in Washington state, told Food Safety News. "They moved to a lot of highly processed foods really quickly. At the same time, they lost that physically active lifestyle that was practiced because they had to be active to hunt and gather and fish. That's why we've seen a rapid increase in obesity and diabetes within the last 150 years or so."
The fight against oppression foods: Food commodities — like flour, lard and sugar — are what Chef Sean Sherman (popularly known as "The Sioux Chef"), a member of the Oglala Lakota peoples in South Dakota, called "oppression food" in this week's episode of The Movement.
Sherman advocates for a return to "pre-reservation" indigenous foods used by Native American peoples prior to colonization and displacement from their lands. His activism comes in the form of culinary arts. His protest takes place in the kitchen.
The Minneapolis-based caterer and food educator provides cooking classes, offers speeches and food demonstrations with the purpose of restoring traditional Native American foods and flavors to prominence in Native communities and beyond.
Sherman's return to traditional foods could prove transformative in places like the Bois Forte Reservation where I interviewed him. A gas station is the closest "store" where processed and frozen food items can be purchased. To get to a supermarket where fresh and healthy foods are served, people have to travel 34 miles to the closest market and 62 for a full supermarket. Bois Forte Reservation is a food desert not unlike some others.
A 2013 report on access to healthy food by PolicyLink, a national research and action institute, stated "In rural areas, 10 miles is typically considered an acceptable distance to travel to a grocery store, supermarket, or other retail food outlet. However, it is not uncommon for the closest grocery store to be much farther away, and people living in low income, rural communities typically have the farthest distances to travel to access healthy food."
This is a problem — one that is disproportionately impacting working-poor and poor people living in the rural and urban food deserts of the U.S. Native American communities are particularly vulnerable. The food commerce industries, government, and consumers are implicated. Yet, Sherman's solution of returning to the foods and food gathering practices of one's traditions is a solution that may have life-changing, and life-extending, consequences.
Instead of eating foods that oppress the body, Sherman insists we consume the foods that sustain and enliven it instead.
Check out this week's episode of The Movement: