Traditional Foods

Traditional Foods: Part I

Food is nourishment. Food is culture. Food is important.

A movement is emerging in Native America. A revival of sorts, and it’s deeply rooted in our food system. If you are in search of a trendy diet or carefully-portioned 200 calorie meal packaged neatly in cellophane and cardboard, you won’t find it here.

This is a revival of traditional foods, the foods our ancestors cultivated, gathered, hunted, and preserved. A revival of tribal gardens flourishing with the sweet smell of blue and white corn, brightly colored chiles and ripe berries, and varieties of squash you have never seen. A restoration of fishing and gathering techniques, interwoven with traditional knowledge, stories, and language; the rebirth of buffalo herds and whole foods, honoring the generations that came before us.

When it comes to the revival of traditional foods in Native American communities, the Oneida Nation is among the leaders in this movement. Join us in this issue as we interview Mr. William (Bill) Vervoort of the Onieda Community Integrated Food Systems (OCIFS), to learn more about one of the most comprehensive tribally-sustained food projects in Indian Country.

Special thanks to Bill Vervoort and Jeff Metoxen of OCIFS, the Oneida Nation, and Jeff Metoxen and Randy Cornelius for sharing traditional recipes. 

Hanging White Corn – OCIFS (Oneida Nation)

Oneida Community Integrated Food Systems

MISSION:  The Oneida Community Integrated Food Systems entities are here as a team to help families by housing a community food system that will include traditional food products and help create a local economy that will provide jobs, and promote and encourage long range solutions to farm and nutrition issues on the Oneida Reservation.

♦ The Interview ♦

How did the Oneida Community Integrated Food System (OCIFS) get started?

Planting day at OCIFS

Our first step was getting community data on health issues on this reservation, diabetes rates and related health data on issues involving health in our community.  If you have a health center, they are required to keep data on health in the community.  However, getting data back out of the system can be tricky.  In our case, we used diagnostic codes to track health related issues.  We are also working with a local Epicenter and a report is generated every two years, roughly, on community health issues.  We receive the ‘Special Diabetes Grant’ and part of the requirements involve looking at the diabetes rate in our community on a yearly basis.  Once we had a picture of the community health issues, education and awareness kicked in.

We worked with a Traditional Wellness person to get a cultural perspective on food and indigenous foods for this community.  We started looking at some of the health issues in our community.  We also started looking at the school and issues of medication and health within our school system. A program was created to work on policy development and process improvement strategies of getting healthy food into our school system.

Entrance to the Oneida Nation Farms. The tribal herd of Black Angus Cattle and the herd of Oneida Buffalo are grass-fed with no added steroids, hormones, antibiotics, or animal byproducts.

We discovered with the average transportation of foods to our area, fresh food is in transit possibly as long as two weeks or more.  In two weeks, most fruit and vegetables lose their nutritional content and are totally depleted of nutrients when it gets here.  You think you are eating healthy, but food is depleted by the time it arrives here!

This got us thinking about integrating our own food products and locally grown organic farmers in our area. Why not create a local food economy for our feeding programs, which is the school, day care, child care and elderly feeding programs, because the food is created by the same source for these programs.

Tsyunhehkwa Plants

When OCIFS began in 1994, we did not have enough production to provide enough food for the community. As our production increases, we are looking at how to integrate our own food products back into the tribal organization.  This led us to doing a Community Food Assessment in 2009. We consider this document to be a continued work in progress and plan to update it every 3 to 4 years.  From this we would like to create an advisory team to change some of the tribal purchasing policies to integrate our own foods back into the organization.  Our goal is to integrate 10% of food purchases from OCIFS back into the tribal organization.

Oneida Farm started in 1978, Food Distribution Program started in 1980, Farmers Market started in 2001, Orchard started in 1994, Tsyunhehkwa started in 1995, Falling Leaves 4-H started in 2002.

What is your favorite thing about being involved in a local food system?

The possibilities and how important they are. The Oneida Tribe was way ahead of the curve when you think of the importance of food. In the past 5 years, more and more people understand the relationship between food and our health. The projected health care costs of the U.S. in nutrition related diseases are $147 billion a year. But we are not just talking about money or even quality of life. We are talking about the security of this country. Presently, 27 percent of young adults are too overweight to qualify for military service. My favorite thing about being involved in the local food system is the importance and the difference we can make in our community.

What traditional Oneida foods can be found in the different OCIFS programs?

Youth at the OCIFS Apple Orchard

The Tsyunhehkwa program is the cultural food arm of OCIFS. They provide most of the traditional Oneida foods like the Oneida White corn, beans, squash and medicinal herbs. They also have a ‘Pick Your Own Berry’ patch.  In addition they have free range poultry, eggs, and grass fed beef. They also provide a vast array of garden produce.

The Oneida Nation Farm produce black angus beef and grass fed bison.

The Apple Orchard grows strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, squash, pumpkins and 26 varieties of apples.

The OCIFS has taken great strides to produce natural beef and buffalo (free of steroids, antibiotics, and hormones) and organically-grown produce whenever possible.  How have these practices affected the sustainability of OCIFS?

To be honest, in the short term they have somewhat adversely affected the sustainability of OCIFS. This is because to farm in the natural and organic method it is much more labor intensive and thus more costly. Although our products are superior in nutritional value it is a difficult for people to understand the necessary higher costs. However, we believe that as people continue to be better educated about the food system, they will be more willing to pay a higher price for a premium/healthy product.

What advice would you offer tribes that are interested in starting their own community food system?

As anything worth doing, it does come with barriers that need to be addressed in a pro-active manner:

Stephanie, Jen, Sylvia, and Arlie sampling fresh food.

  • Cooks, we discovered with our cooks for our feeding programs were very happy at opening cans and simplistic heating of prepared food items.  It took a lot of work and education to get them cooking again.  They are now creating wonderful home cooked meals on some days, with our own beef and buffalo.  The support of the School System Food Service Director was important in making this work.

Buffalo Overlook

  • Our meat is not USDA Certified but State Certified.  Food for our feeding programs comes from the USDA/Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI).  Currently our traditional white corn is processed with a USDA certification so it was easier to integrate that product into the feeding programs.  After several months of negotiation with the UDSA regional office, we are now allowed to sell our meat to the school and serve it along side the DPI feeding programs.  The next phase is to work with the USDA to allow us to provide more than the maximum 20% of the school budget for local foods.  The reason our meat is not USDA processed is when meat is processed at the USDA plants, your meat is thrown in with other producers and you never know what meat you will be getting in return.  Our meat is considered natural, with no hormones, antibiotics and healthy feed.  It was important for us to get our own product back to us.

The OCIFS Farmers Market

  • Internal Food Policies.  In the past, we were told we couldn’t get our foods into our own organization.  We asked questions and low and behold we are working to get our own foods into our organization.  I would say never take no as an answer.  Ask questions, ask questions and talk directly to those that can make things happen for you.  You may be surprised at the positive answers you get.  I know we were.

4-H members in food pantry cleaning Oneida White Corn

  • Community awareness and education is key to any community initiative.  The community needed to know the current diabetes rate, the health problems in the community, nutritional inadequacies of our current food sources, and the extensive distances food travels to our community.  We continue to do things that bring this to the attention of the community and continue to further educate the community.
  • Don’t give up.  You may lose the little battles but think of new and better ways to overcome objectives.  A lot of times “no” means we need more information.  We haven’t stated our case thoroughly or in the right way for people to understand.  Celebrate the small successes!!

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The following is a short video about the Oneida Farmers Market:

  • Try one of the traditional recipes submitted by the OCIFS staff and Oneida members. Depending on your location, some of the traditional foods (e.g. Oneida White Corn) listed in the recipes may not be available. If this is the case, try substituting produce for a similar traditional food from your area or something harvested locally.
  • Interview elders in your community. Have them tell you about the foods they ate as children (and about the food their grandparents ate). Record their stories, and share the history of your traditional food system with others.
  • Identify people in your community who have knowledge of traditional foods, and ask them to help you start a community-sustained food project.
  • Encourage your tribal diabetes prevention program and/or health promotion program to get involved in restoring a healthy, sustainable food system.
  • Start your own local food project… start small, but think BIG.
◊ Coming Soon ◊

Join us next month for Part II of the ‘Traditional Foods’ issue featuring a variety of Traditional Foods Projects funded through the CDC’s Native Diabetes Wellness Program. Located throughout Indian Country, these Traditional Foods Projects use traditional foods and sustainable ecological approaches to champion diabetes prevention and health promotion efforts in their tribal communities.


5 responses to “Traditional Foods

  1. This is inspiring! I started eating an indigenous diet a month ago. I feel great! I believe traditional eating is the answer to many health issues that First Nations are afflicted with such as diabetes and obesity. Please Join the Turtle Island Garden Club on Facebook for information on gardening and to share traditional knowledge about growing and eating foods.

    • Thank you for your kind words! The stories and interviews we’ve featured are incredibly empowering, and we feel honored to recognize the hard work of these communities. I hope your students and colleagues enjoy. I’m not sure where you’re located, but you could consider planning a field trip to one of the traditional foods projects nearest you. Thanks for reading!

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