Another Key Front in the Growing Funder Push on Food: Native American Communities

Sustainable agriculture and food systems make up one of the hottest areas of philanthropy right now, drawing big interest from health, environment, and justice funders alike.

One arena where there’s a lot of food philanthropy happening that you may not have heard about, however, is in Native American communities, where poverty and a loss of access to traditional Native foods have contributed to high rates of type 2 diabetes and obesity.

Such health implications, along with a lack of funds from the federal government, prompted the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community (SMSC) to commit $5 million to a two-year program called Seeds of Native Health. The national campaign launched in 2015 with a main goal of improving indigenous nutrition. It's a fitting name, awarding many smaller grants and aiming to pull varied efforts into a larger, comprehensive strategy. 

Grants are being channeled toward programming through the University of Minnesota, the First Nations Development Institute based in Colorado, and the Notah Begay III Foundation based in New Mexico. 

Related: Can Philanthropy Help the Feds Bring Sustainable Food Systems to Scale?

While the initiative is seeking additional donors, core funding comes from the SMSC, which has become the largest benefactor for Native American communities nationally since opening its gaming facilities in the 1990s. SMSC has now donated more than $325 million and made more than $500 million in economic development loans to other tribes.

The Seeds of Native Health Initiative has a handful of strategies, including research at the University of Minnesota on the disconnect between academia and traditional Native American knowledge as it relates to food and health. Sharing of knowledge is a big priority overall, with funding going toward a series of national conferences, and publicly accessible databases on Native American nutrition research. The First Annual Conference on Native American Nutrition held in September drew around 450 attendees from more than 40 tribes and 32 states. 

Meanwhile, the First Nations Development Institute and the Notah Begay III Foundation are carrying out rounds of grantmaking with campaign funding, holding RFPs to award smaller amounts. 

First Nations Development Institute is a nonprofit that launched in 1980 with a $25,000 grant from the Ford Foundation, and has since grown into a national grantmaking program supporting Native communities. It backs programs in financial empowerment, asset building, youth, and Native foods and health. The institute has given more than $5.6 million since 2002 toward Native agriculture and food systems. 

The Notah Begay III Foundation is the only national Native American nonprofit solely dedicated to reversing Native American childhood obesity and type 2 diabetes. The organization was founded by PGA tour winner and full-blooded Native American Notah Begay III.

Seeds of Native Health grants so far have gone to a mix of local projects educating about sustainable food and agriculture, developing national curriculum on traditional Native foods, developing local action plans to combat childhood obesity, and local organic food markets for low income and young people. 

The campaign’s also picked up some strategic partners, including the American Heart Association, and MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger.

It’s an interesting combination of research, convenings, education, and grassroots support that will hopefully have the effect of building more knowledge about and increasing the prominence of the neglected problem. It also backs efforts led by tribes and Native-led organizations themselves, which has potential to support both sovereignty in the communities, and more distributed, local control, a priority for many sustainable food campaigns looking to untangle industrialized agriculture.

Related: The Bumper Crop of Funders Working for Sustainable Food