On Pine Ridge Reservation, a Garden Helps Replace an 80-mile Grocery Trip | Civil Eats

On Pine Ridge Reservation, a Garden Helps Replace an 80-mile Grocery Trip

Rose Fraser harvesting potatoes in a garden on the Pine Ridge Reservation. (Photo courtesy of the Oyate Teca Project)

Buying groceries can take Doug Pourier the better part of a day. A member of the Oglala Lakota Nation, Pourier lives on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in southwest South Dakota, where he says local convenience stores sell limited quantities of expiring produce at inflated prices. For that reason, he spends his weekends driving to and from Rapid City, which is 80 miles away, to purchase a variety of higher-quality foods.

“It’s frustrating because you have to drive that far just to get your fresh vegetables, and you have to buy [in bulk] because you don’t want to be taking a trip every other day,” said the 43-year-old father of twins. “And it starts to go bad in your refrigerator because it was sitting there too long.”

More than 40,000 members make up the Oglala Lakota Nation and the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation spans nearly 3,500 square miles, but the dearth of grocery stores and the high poverty rate put residents in a profound state of food insecurity, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

The reopening of a small grocery store in Pine Ridge was cause for a community celebration in 2019, but only large grocery stores that earn millions in annual revenue and have all food departments meet the federal government’s definition of a supermarket. Health inspectors found that its predecessor in the same location had combined and sold packages of rotten and fresh hamburger, among other health violations.

“The quality isn’t that great; it’s hitting the bottom of the barrel,” said Phil Zimiga, a 60-year-old former casino manager, of the food available at stores on the reservation. “It’s old; it’s almost ready to expire by the time it’s available to us here locally.”

In addition, an estimated 95 percent of the food consumed on the reservation is imported, while most of the food produced there is shipped away, according to the Lakota Food Sovereignty Coalition. Food insecurity on the reservation contributes to chronic health problems among the Oglala Lakota, since it’s more convenient for tribal members to load up on processed foods during their trips to the supermarket than on fresh produce with a short shelf life. As a result, a fifth of Oglala Lakota County residents have diabetes, and half of all adults there experience obesity.

“What everybody does is the moment they get their EBT allotments, they pack the Walmarts,” said Tom Cook, founder of the Slim Buttes Agricultural Development Program, a nonprofit that works to combat food insecurity on the reservation. “My wife worked there for five years and was surprised that [her fellow] Lakotas pile up with cornflakes, cookies, pop, bologna, and all this junk food.”

Both Pourier and Zimiga hope to change these outcomes and foster food autonomy among the Oglala Lakota. As students in the Medicine Root Gardening Program on the Pine Ridge reservation, they’ve learned to grow their own food. Part of the Oyate Teca Project, which promotes the well-being of Oglala Lakota children and families, the program teaches participants how to start organic home gardens, supplying them with seeds, soil, and tools along with fencing and irrigation assistance. Offered annually since 2016, the nine-month gardening program has given Pine Ridge residents increased access to fresh fruits and vegetables, and students in the course have produced 20,000 pounds of crops since its launch.

After years of struggling to garden, stay-at-home mother Alice Leftwich now grows onions, tomatoes, jalapeños, and pumpkins at her home. The shift began over the past year when she enrolled in the Medicine Root Program and became a star gardening student. The 30-year-old, who is pursuing an associate’s degree in carpentry, has passed on her new skills to her 11-year-old daughter, a natural at growing strawberry plants.

Gardening interested Leftwich because she worried about pesticides and other harmful chemicals in store-bought foods. Growing her own, she said, “helps us eat better, and it also tastes a lot better, and we know where the food is coming from.”

More than Gardening

As the COVID-19 pandemic heightened food insecurity nationally, home gardens allowed Medicine Root participants to have some control over their food supply and to help community members in need. Located in one of the nation’s most impoverished counties, the unemployment, hunger, and housing instability that have made headlines nationwide during the pandemic have persisted in Pine Ridge for generations due to the legacy of colonization and systemic oppression.

That’s why the program doesn’t just turn participants into skilled gardeners, it also trains them in financial literacy. Students learn how to make seasonal income by canning their crops or selling surplus produce at farmers’ markets, and they receive accounting lessons to equip them to become produce vendors should they want to turn their gardening skills into a full-fledged business. With this multidimensional platform, the program has gone from training eight students per session in 2016 to 65 today.

“I know that people have these garden clubs all around the world, but this is something new for us here,” said Rose Fraser, executive director of the Oyate Teca Project. “It’s new and it’s exciting. I think everybody loves coming to our classes.”

The course also helps to preserve Lakota culture, teaching students Lakota food names and traditional food drying methods. In a community that was struggling long before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the gardening program has provided participants with at least one path to offset the devastating effects of food and financial insecurity.

“In the beginning of the class, we do a lot of surveys with our students and ask them what they like to eat, because that’s where it all starts,” Fraser said. “You’re not going to plant something you’re not going to eat.”

Many students like to grow what they’ve nicknamed salsa and soup gardens. One focuses on tomatoes, onions, and peppers—the ingredients needed to make salsa—while the other involves growing the cabbages, potatoes, and carrots commonly used in soups. Students can learn growing practices suitable for a row garden, container garden, box garden, no till garden, or a hay bale garden. “We also provide fencing for a standard 40-foot-by-60-foot garden, which is 10 rows,” Fraser said. “We teach them how they can feed a family of four with just those rows.”

Although John Haas, a retired Oglala Lakota educator who lives on the Pine Ridge reservation, has gardened for most of his life, he signed up for the program a few years ago to learn how to grow high-quality produce. He especially enjoyed learning about the Mittleider gardening method, which covers everything from seed selection to irrigation. “It teaches companion planting so that your vegetables complement each other and help each other fight bugs and diseases,” Haas said. “And it goes into how to grow them more effectively and efficiently.”

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Haas appreciates the course’s emphasis on accountability and record keeping, which helped him track which of his efforts made his garden thrive. The focus on organization and documentation also made it clear which plants he could expect to pop up in his garden and where. “It’s not just feeding chickens, where you throw seeds on the ground and hope something will come up,” he said.

Connecting with fellow gardeners is one aspect of the course he’s most enjoyed. “I’ve learned quite a bit in talking with other gardeners,” he said. “You learn why they did something a certain way when maybe you were faced with that same dilemma and you didn’t know which way to turn. That camaraderie with other gardeners is really important.”

Slim Butte’s Tom Cook admires the program because of the support participants receive. “It’s continuous over the growing season, so students get the reinforcement and help they need [related to] production, preservation, or sales,” he said. “It’s all integrated there because they’re surrounded with the structure of the program.”

Sharing the Harvest

When Haas harvests vegetables from his garden it’s a group affair. He uses his heirloom tomatoes in a salsa he gives away to community members. He hands out his corn as well. “You cut it, and then you dry it in the sun,” said the 73-year-old. “That’s the traditional Lakota way that we learned so that we could store it. It can be used over the winter in soups and other dishes, and sometimes I put it in quart jars and put a bow on it and give it out for Christmas presents. The old women—older than me—really like that.”

In addition to drying corn the Lakota way, Medicine Root students learn to make jam out of the chokecherries and buffalo berries that are traditionally part of the Lakota diet. “We also do drying of the meat. It’s called papa,” Fraser said. Together, dried meat and dried chokecherries are the foundation of the Lakota food called wasná, and dried corn is called wastunkala.

Students at the Lakota Waldorf School in Pine Ridge are learning a variety of words for traditional foods and gardening methods, according to Fraser. After faculty members took the class, she said, they decided to replicate it for their students.

“They use the vegetables in the school lunch program where their kids are eating better than public school kids because our kids in public schools eat canned vegetables,” Haas added.

Like most gardening programs across the country, Medicine Root has seen a surge of interest over the last year and a half. When the pandemic hit, people worried that fruits and vegetables would become even more scarce in the Pine Ridge region.

“We had people calling us in a panic,” recalled Fraser, who said she’s fielded more calls over the past 18 months than ever before. People were desperate to plant a garden and sign up for the program, although it was too late for these would-be gardeners to enroll. So, Fraser launched a basic gardening class to meet their needs. More than 100 people signed up for the four-week crash course, and then some of those participants signed up for the full nine-month program at the start of this year.

“The other thing that was really good about our gardening program during that time was that we were able to provide produce,” Fraser said. “We did fresh vegetable distributions on a weekly basis. We were able to distribute up to 125 bags of produce some [weeks].”

Brandon Rook, spokesman for Newman’s Own Foundation, a funder of the Medicine Root program, said that the pandemic has put everyone into survival mode. As community members on and off reservations struggle to get their basic needs met, Rook considers the gardening program to be a vital resource.

One in four Native Americans is food insecure, so [the program’s] work is so critical,” he said. “COVID-19 has proven that it’s important to be self-reliant, and that’s what they’re doing—they’re teaching these families how to grow their own food.”

Fostering Entrepreneurship

While Medicine Root students learn the fundamentals of gardening, they also have the opportunity to study financial literacy and business planning, which Fraser said helps them channel their garden expertise into a career. Learning the principles of business is a requirement for course participants interested in applying for microloans for farm equipment from the Lakota Federal Credit Union.

Alumni of the program have gone on to start their own farmers’ markets, meal programs for the elderly, and a garden at a local correctional facility. Others, such as Phil Zimiga, earn extra income selling their produce. He is now considering selling his potatoes full time in a farmers’ market—a turn of events he credits to the knowledge he’s acquired during his four years taking Medicine Root classes.

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“I tried to garden for maybe eight years prior to taking the class, and I had no idea what I was doing,” Zimiga said. “Some years, I would have a little bit of success. The next year I’d have no success, so then I wouldn’t garden the next year. But when I got introduced to the class, I started to connect the dots.”

By some estimates, only 4 percent of Pine Ridge land is conducive to agriculture due to the overgrazing of cattle and, as Zimiga notes, the federal government’s history of forcing Native Americans onto inhospitable lands. In the Medicine Root program, he learned about composting techniques. “Each year [my] soil is getting better and better,” he said.

Although Pourier didn’t garden before taking the course, Medicine Root made such a profound impact on him that he now works as the program’s garden manager. He studied construction in college, and that background has proven helpful in building garden beds.

“It’s a lot of fun; I love gardening,” Pourier said. “It takes passion to [manage] a garden.”

He balances his time between construction work and managing the program’s garden, but he also started a farmers’ market with the help of his teenage sons, who have been inspired by their father’s enjoyment of gardening.

“They started loving all the fresh vegetables,” Pourier said. “They got their friends into doing it, too, and now we have a little crew of high schoolers who garden.”

There’s no comparison between growing one’s own food and eating food sold commercially, Fraser contends. “Being able to provide produce within our own families is healthier,” she said. “The taste is different and the quality is a lot different, so I think everybody’s just enjoying providing their own food.”

For Pourier, gardening has proven life-changing. After struggling for years to access fresh produce or paying high gas and grocery store costs to obtain it, he now has too many fresh fruits and vegetables. Turning a profit at the farmers’ market on his excess zucchini is now the norm for him.

“Everything that we have in abundance we sell, sell, sell,” he said of his garden. “You actually make money for something that you fell in love doing.”

Nadra Nittle was a Senior Reporter for Civil Eats until 2021. She is currently an education reporter for The 19th News. Based in Los Angeles, she was previously a reporter for The Goods by Vox and was also on staff at the former Vox Media website Racked. She has worked for newspapers affiliated with the Digital First Media and Gannett/USA Today networks and freelanced for a variety of media outlets, including The Atlantic, ThinkProgress, KCET, and About.com. Nadra has covered several issues as a reporter, such as health, education, race, pop culture, and religion. She is the author of Toni Morrison's Spiritual Vision: Faith, Folktales, and Feminism in Her Life and Literature. Read more >

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  1. Stan Barnes
    We love you Rose! You have a beautiful heart!!

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