As inflation soars, access to Indigenous foods declines

Published 4:00 pm Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Associated Press

Blueberry bison tamales, harvest salad with mixed greens, creamy carrot and wild rice soup, roasted turkey with squash. This contemporary Native American meal, crafted 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 last November.

Today it costs her nearly double.

Pamonicutt is the executive chef of Chicago-based Native American catering business Ketapanen Kitchen. She is a citizen of the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin but was raised in the Windy City, home to one of the largest urban Native populations in the country, according to the American Indian Center of Chicago.

Her business aims to offer health-conscious meals featuring Indigenous ingredients to the Chicago Native community and educate people about Indigenous contributions to everyday American fare.

One day, she aims to purchase all ingredients from Native suppliers and provide her community with affordable access to healthy Indigenous foods, “but this whole inflation thing has slowed that down,” she said.

U.S. inflation surged to a new four-decade high in June, squeezing household budgets with painfully high prices for gas, food and rent.

Traditional Indigenous foods — like wild rice, bison, fresh vegetables and fruit in the Midwest — are often unavailable or too expensive for Native families in urban areas like Chicago, and the recent inflation spike has propelled these foods even further out of reach.

Risk of disease compounds the problem: healthy eating is key to battling diabetes, which afflicts 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, a dietician at Native American Community Clinic in Minneapolis. “The body knows exactly how to process and use that food. These foods are natural to the Earth.”

But many people the clinic serves are low-income and do not have the luxury of choosing where their food comes from. Food deserts – areas with limited access to a variety of healthy and affordable foods – are more likely to exist in places with higher rates of poverty and concentrations of minority populations.

“In these situations, there are limited healthy food options, not to mention limited traditional food options,” Thurin said.

Aside from health benefits, traditional foods hold important cultural and emotional value.

“It’s just comfort,” said Danielle Lucas, a 39-year-old descendant of the Sicangu Lakota people from the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in South Dakota.

Lucas’ mother, Evelyn Red Lodge, said she hasn’t prepared traditional dishes of the Great Plains, like wojapi berry sauce or stew, since May because the prices of key ingredients – berries and meat – have soared.

Pamonicutt, too, is feeling the pinch. Between last winter and this spring, the price of bison jumped from $13.99 to $23.99 per pound.

Shipping costs are so high that the chef said it’s often cheaper to drive hundreds of miles to buy ingredients, even with spiking gas prices. She’s even had to create her own suppliers: the 45-year-old’s parents are now growing crops for her business on their Wisconsin property near the Illinois border.

Gina Roxas, program coordinator at Trickster Cultural Center in Schaumburg, Illinois, a Chicago suburb, has also agreed to grow Native foods to help the chef minimize costs.

When a bag of wild rice costs $20, “you end up going to a fast food place 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 to leave reservations and assimilate into American society.

Dorene Wiese, executive director of the Chicago-based American Indian Association of Illinois, said members of her community have to prioritize making rent payments over splurging on healthy, traditional foods.

Even though specialty chefs like Pamonicutt aim to feed their own communities, the cost of her premium catering service is out of the price range for many urban Natives. Her meals end up feeding majority non-Native audiences at museums or cultural events that can foot the bill, said Wiese, a citizen of the Minnesota White Earth Band of Ojibwe Indians.