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Why Food Sovereignty Matters

American Indian and Alaska Native communities often lack easy access to fresh, affordable food.

There’s no universal definition for food sovereignty, but it can be described as the ability of communities to determine the quantity and quality of the food that they consume by controlling how their food is produced and distributed. 

Food sovereignty initiatives like farm-to-table and farm-to-school programs are important for the long-term health, economic stability, and cultural preservation of American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) communities. 

A growing number of AI/AN individuals today are starting to regain control of their food supply by growing traditional foods on their own and collaborating with the federal government. 

Through its partnerships with the George Washington University (GW) International Institute of Tourism Studies and the Pamplin College of Business at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech), the Office of Indian Economic Development (IED) is working to strengthen tribal food systems and promote indigenous tourism initiatives connected with Native foods.

Community Health

Food sovereignty empowers Native households and communities to address issues of hunger and health by cultivating their own healthy, fresh foods. 

Public health data suggests that AI/AN individuals have a lower life expectancy and are affected by many more chronic conditions compared with other racial/ethnic groups. 

These diet-related issues are often connected to a reliance on outside food sources that put the health of AI/AN people at risk. Much of Indian Country imports its food from large industrial and retail operations because of a lack of easy access to grocery stores or other sources of quality, affordable food.

Restoring Traditions

The concept of food sovereignty is relatively new, but the principles behind it align with many Native cultural practices that have existed for a millennia. 

In the past, traditional indigenous communities cultivated and ate a wide variety of food including wild meats like buffalo, fish, venison, and a variety of fruits and vegetables such as cactus fruit, cranberries, plums, corn, beans, and squash. 

For AI/AN communities, food sovereignty is about re-introducing traditional processes of food production and distribution.

Economic Empowerment and Tourism

While many tribes implement food sovereignty programs to help their own communities, other tribes engage in food production and distribution to gain economic self-sufficiency by establishing food-based businesses.  

Some AI/AN groups are able to produce more food than their communities need and can profit from the surplus or produce food with the intent of establishing a business.  

Hunting, fishing, ranching, and farming have always been connected to AI/AN culture and identity. Though many AI/AN groups are presently involved in the gaming and mining industries, traditional food production is a way for an AI/AN community to start a business in a more familiar industry. 

In the cultural tourism industry, there is also a growing interest in indigenous foods from tribal communities. IED is supporting its university partners at GW and Virginia Tech in their collaboration with the Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance to help tribal communities in North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, and Virginia in exploring agritourism and agribusiness opportunities.

Pandemic Challenges

The COVID-19 pandemic underscores the value of food sovereignty as many Native households struggle to acquire and pay for food, and have access to quality, fresh produce. 

Throughout history, communities that could produce their own food were better equipped to get through periods of financial difficulty. 

Read more about tribal food production during the COVID-19 pandemic

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