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White Earth Land Recovery Project turns to diabetes prevention

Pine Point students Caitlyn Clark and Kianna Eischens enjoy fresh-picked corn on the cob.1 / 2
Alan Jackson and Gordon Basswood join farmer Art Disse in a taste of his apples.2 / 2

PINE POINT -- For about 20 years now, the White Earth Land Recovery Project has been working on cultural revitalization, food and energy sovereignty issues on the White Earth reservation.

The Mino-Miijim ("Good Food") Program was created several years ago, to address the diabetes epidemic on the White Earth Reservation and to restore health and balance to the community. The program provides traditional native and healthy food items to diabetic individuals and their families.

But with almost a third of the reservation's population now suffering from the disease, the WELRP decided that more emphasis needed to be put on prevention.

About three years ago, discussions began about the possibility of changing the school lunch menus in the Pine Point community, to remove as many harmful ingredients like high fructose corn syrup and food dyes from the students' diets as possible. At the same time, as many locally grown and traditional native foods as possible would be introduced to replace the less healthy items.

About a year and a half ago, in September 2007, the Farm to School program was first implemented in the Pine Point School District.

"It's a process, and it's not quite as easy as I would like it to be," said Farm to School program coordinator Kyra Busch. But so far, the program has been an unqualified success.

"We're buying fresh ingredients from local farmers and incorporating them into the menu," said Busch. "Over the past year and a half we've served things like buffalo sloppy joes and burgers, hominy soup, and wild rice in a number of dishes. We get fresh corn on the cob, green beans that are bought fresh in the fall, frozen and served all winter long, (as well as) fresh strawberries, raspberries, blueberries... it's really exciting."

For instance, instead of making instant mashed potatoes from a box, school cook Janelle Weaver makes homemade, organic mashed potatoes from scratch.

Weaver, along with the school's principal, physical education teacher, and teachers of grades 1, 3 and 5/6 (a combined class) serves on a committee with a representative from the White Earth diabetes project.

"The committee has been working really hard on this, and they've done a fabulous job of bringing people together," Busch said.

The committee meetings are open to the public, and they have had input from the community at various times, she added.

"I'm really excited about the program," said Busch. "It's not only about healthy eating practices, but also the economy. We've been able to work with almost 50 local farming families and small businesses, and I'm estimating that this year we were able to bring almost $25,000 into the local food economy, so that's really exciting.

"There are health benefits and economic benefits, cultural and community benefits," Busch continued. "We're bringing people together to share food and share culture, and that's something people can see and get excited about. I hope to see that continue and expand to a few other schools on the reservation and around the region, to create similar programs."

As part of the Farm to School program, the Pine Point School periodically makes feasts for community events such as conventions, after-school presentations and other activities.

This year, the school has scheduled monthly "Family Fun Days" which include not only a feast of traditional, healthy foods, but cultural, physical and arts activities that the students' families can do together.

"We have a different food and different theme that we focus on every month, and the kids do curriculum activities related to that," Busch added.

As the name "fun day" implies, the events have been "a whole lot of fun."

The next feast is scheduled for Monday, Jan. 23, and will be preceded by a community cooking class on Jan. 22.

"We also hope to have a storyteller come in for this month's feast," Busch said. "It's a traditional winter activity. We're also going to try to take the kids ice fishing this month."

January's theme is fish, or "gigoonh," and the feast will incorporate fresh walleye that was generously donated by the Red Lake community.

"The good news is, (the walleye) will be delicious, the bad news is, we may not have enough to welcome everyone who wants to come. We have had many guest delegations from other reservations, as well as out of town visitors."

In order to make sure there is enough food to go around, anyone who is not a member of the Pine Point community but would like to attend is asked to RSVP to the school as soon as possible.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454