White Earth Reservation receives state grant to fight 'food desert' problem with food truck

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WHITE EARTH, Minn.—According to the latest statistics, 90 percent of White Earth Nation in northern Minnesota is considered a federally-recognized "food desert." Access to good, nutritious food is incredibly scarce, but junk-food options are readily available in the few convenience stores the reservation has. It's an issue the tribe has been fighting for many years. Now, they may have a solution: the White Earth Mobile Market Food Truck.

"White Earth is a rural community and, the funny thing is, people do grow food," said Zachary Paige, Food Sovereignty Coordinator with White Earth Natural Resources Department.

Paige listed off the many foods that are currently being grown and gathered locally (wild rice, honey, maple syrup, corn, beans, squash, potatoes, carrots, berries and venison), but stated that there is a disconnect between the local growers and gatherers and the consumers.

For one, much of the locally-grown food is currently being exported, which Paige said is still good for the community revenue-wise just not nutrition-wise.

Food grown in White Earth is being exported largely because there just aren't enough places to distribute it in White Earth. The reservation, which has roughly 1,000 square-miles of land, has just a few gas stations (where fruit and vegetable options are limited) and a farmer's market.

To actually get a variety of fruits and vegetables, people living on the White Earth Reservation have to travel to either Detroit Lakes, Park Rapids or Mahnomen --a trek that is about 30 miles one way, sometimes more.

"It's a deterrent for people to spend money on gas," said Paige. "And maybe, if they're driving all that way, they're buying more bulk items, more non-perishables. If they're going to town once every two weeks, they're not going to buy bananas because they'll just go bad."

So, since the people can't get to the food, Paige and the rest of the people working with the White Earth Food Sovereignty Initiative decided to bring the food to the people.

Paige applied for the first-ever Good Food Access Program Grant through the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, which received $150,000 in funds from the state of Minnesota to distribute to areas in need of food as they see fit. They saw fit to give $39,800 to White Earth for its mobile food truck, as well as a few vegetable display coolers that will be placed in White Earth convenience stores.

"I have this image," said Paige, thinking of the big piece of the project, the truck, "of kids using the truck to cook with native foods."

He's hoping elders will see young people cooking their native foods, making indigenous dishes, and they will be proud and, hopefully, inspired to cook the dishes themselves.

The truck will be used to both cook and sell meals, as well as to sell the locally-grown produce. He says he's hoping to pair up with the community college extension and to train students in cooking with the native crops and foods.

"Part of it is demystifying the ability to cook," said Paige, adding that he's hoping to be able to supply people with not only food but recipes to cook the food.

They're still working on partnering with different farmers, stores and other organizations, and the truck won't be operational until next year. When it is, it will be traveling around, parking at powwows, possibly the farmer's market, as well as the few gas stations White Earth does have.

"We'll be kind of going wherever we can...and putting the truck strategically in those places where people are already buying junk food," said Paige.