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Boosting Philanthropic Investment in Healthy Food in Tribal Communities

July 2019

Virginia Clarke, Executive Director, Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems Funders

Tribal communities in America receive only about a half percent of all philanthropic giving, and the total dollar amount of grantmaking in these communities by large philanthropic foundations actually declined by 29 percent ($35 million) from 2006 to 2014 according to a report by First Nations Development Institute. Additionally, only a small portion of those grant dollars go to Native-controlled organizations. There is so much room for innovation and collaboration in this grossly underfunded sector of our society.

For nearly fifteen years, Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems Funders (SAFSF) has presented programs with the guidance and counsel of funders and nonprofits working in Indian Country. For the first many years these conversations were small and sparsely attended, but we knew the idea of raising awareness of the disparity between need and investment in this area was critically important, and we were determined to continue to highlight the issues, the people, and the communities. Through the power of repetition and offering very interactive experiences, we feel like we are finally making headway in having funders include Native Americans when they talk about diversity, inclusion, and equity in their funding and investment priorities and within their organizational structures.

When Native Americans shared their knowledge of food and the natural environment with the earliest European colonizers, they unwittingly set the stage for the marginalization of the very knowledge without which those Europeans would certainly not have survived. The stage was set for a systematic attempt by colonizers through the centuries to erase the Native identity, influence, and presence in America. This erasure manifests itself today in the isolation and poverty that have led to systemic health, economic, and social problems in Native American communities. Remarkably—but not surprisingly—the extent of philanthropic giving to Native Americans is in inverse proportion to the need in these communities. This is a sad reflection on our country in general and on philanthropy in particular.

The isolation of Native Americans on remote and marginal lands, created by systemic discrimination and land expropriation, has also made it too easy for most of us to pretend that we don’t see the problems they face or that we can’t play a role in fixing them. In spite of all the injustices that have been heaped upon their communities, Native Americans have fought to maintain certain cultural traditions and identities. In our area of work, food continues to embody millennia of agricultural traditions and land stewardship as well as expressions of culture in daily and ceremonial life for Native Americans, even as many families struggle with higher food prices, food insecurity, and diet-related diseases such as obesity and diabetes.

At SAFSF, we have been working to help whittle down the disparity of philanthropic giving in Indian Country by focusing on opportunities to strengthen connections, foster collaborations, and build relationships between funders and nonprofits offering healthy food and food systems solutions in Native communities. We are listening to and partnering with Native-led organizations, consistently and intentionally including conversations about funding in Indian Country on our agenda at every possible opportunity, and challenging our members to get past their perceived barriers to engagement with tribal nations.

For instance, a site visit at our 2014 Annual Forum in Denver was an eye-opening experience for many funders who were completely unaware of the hunger and related health problems faced by urban Native populations, particularly in the center of Colorado which was, at the time, considered to be one of the healthiest states in the nation. Partners at The Denver Indian Center, Inc. (DICI) and the Denver Indian Family Resource Center (DIFRC), both of which provide a wide array of collaborative programs and services aimed at empowering youth, families, and communities through self-determination, cultural identity, and education, offered us the use of their facilities to host a “Chopped” style event we called the Cheese Grater Cook-Off. Teams were given the same tools the families served by these nonprofits might have to work with at home—hot plates, microwaves, a USDA commodity food box, and a limited amount of time to prepare lunch. Native chefs were on hand to offer advice, serve as judges, and educate us about the need to reintegrate and revitalize traditional foods in an effort to improve health outcomes.

Each year, we have added more learning opportunities to address the connections between food and health with Native-led and Native-serving partners and, to this day, we keep a can of USDA commodity beef on a prominent bookcase in our office, a constant reminder of what too many families rely on for sustenance, and the need for us as a philanthropic community to step up and do more.

We actively reach out to secure participation in our programs from Native-led or Native-serving funders. We are learning about the landscape of food and agriculture policies that affect health in tribal nations, alongside our local, state, and national policy work. We also are working on an initiative to catalyze investment in Indian Country through a series of intensive learning workshops and interactions with other groups in order to fast-track funders’ ability to move resources intentionally and have a greater impact on these issues.

Affinity groups can create opportunities to learn from and alongside Native communities and to learn from the funders, as few as they are, who are investing in Indian Country. We must do this work with intention, taking people, their experience and their messages seriously. We must dig into real issues in ways that can help leverage the resources needed to implement real solutions. Native communities are not asking to be told how to produce or eat healthy food. They are asking for philanthropic support, investment capital, and government funding to repair the damage to their food systems created by colonization and discrimination, and to rebuild healthy food systems that are both grounded in traditional foodways and responsive to modern ways of living. This shouldn’t be a revolutionary idea or innovation, but unfortunately it is. That also presents the opportunity for philanthropic action with impact that is truly transformative.