Rosebud Economic Development Corporation Grows Food System from Early Seedlings to Award-Winning Vision
The Rosebud Economic Development Corporation (REDCO) is a familiar name at First Nations. REDCO is a chartered corporation created by the Sicangu Lakota Nation (Rosebud Sioux Tribe) to promote its economic growth. This longtime community partner has grown their food system from a barren garden on a hill into an award-winning vision that is a prototype for communities nationwide. First Nations is honored to be one of the early-stage funders of REDCO and to share highlights of the organization’s progress and successes over the years, and what’s on the horizon for the future.
Matthew Wilson and Michael Prate have witnessed almost unimaginable growth in their time with the Sicangu Food Sovereignty Initiative (SFSI). “When I started my first position as a volunteer, I knew what sovereignty meant, but I really didn’t know what food sovereignty was,” says Wilson, who now leads one of the most robust food sovereignty programs in the country.
Before Wilson took over the SFSI, Michael Prate led the initiative. He says when he came to REDCO in 2015 everything was literally just getting off the ground. The work began long before a single seed was even planted.
The year before Prate – who now serves as the Development Director for Sicangu CDC, the sister 501(c)3 to REDCO – arrived, REDCO had begun surveying community members about the local food system and learned there was a need for a community garden, farmers market, and other food sovereignty initiatives. From there, they had conducted food assessments for eight of the 20 communities across the reservation. REDCO hired a food sovereignty director and two interns to compile and analyze the remaining data. Results confirmed that Rosebud was a food desert, and that tribal members wanted greater access to healthy local and traditional foods.
REDCO used this information to establish the SFSI, a community-based project that promotes “an Indigenous food system that will ensure wicozani (health of mind, body and spirit) for current and future generations.” Learn more in this Indian Giver article.
Still, at the time, the seedlings of this food movement were small and newly planted, and there was skepticism about just what a Lakota-inspired food system would and could look like. There wasn’t a lot of talk about “food sovereignty,” and the term itself was just starting to become more commonplace.
On Rosebud, previous efforts surrounding food systems would start and stop and there was a lot of distrust about the projects and they would quickly dwindle out. “There was no sustainability with the other programs,” says Wilson. In going forward, they had to start small, and just show up and keep building. “We were committed to seeing that the work was carried out and that we followed through with what we said we were going to do,” he adds.
Prate echoes that point. “The more you show up, people see that consistency. They see there’s a dedication; there’s a commitment. And that just starts to build,” he says.
They began with one community garden, and every day volunteers would go behind a local grocery store, attach a garden hose to a fire hydrant, and drag it 800 feet to water the beets, tomatoes, and other seedlings. Located on one of the highest hills on the site, there were many challenges with weather and high winds. “It wasn’t the best place for a garden,” Prate says. “But it was a great place to make a really visible commitment to grow something new and exciting.”
It was on that hill where ultimately the SFSI’s garden, greenhouses, chicken coops, and high tunnels could be seen from Main Street in downtown Mission. They launched a farmers market with just one vendor. Prate says there were times when no one would come, but they kept a consistent focus. “We kept adding to the process with operations and events that people could see,” he says. “This started changing people’s mindsets and the broader community narrative about food systems and the importance of what was happening.
“Something we learned early on is that we didn’t have to have solutions to the whole thing. We had a good idea and a lot of energy,” Prate says. “What we needed to do was to start producing food that people could have access to, and to respond to what the community was most excited by.”
In an effort to expand the food sovereignty movement, the SFSI established an internship and apprenticeship program, and focused on growing the community garden and farmers market. Their initial community assessment showed that people wanted community gardens. They had the land, but didn’t necessarily have the water, tools, or technical knowledge. Based on this, they provided ways to support the community and empower their ability to plant and grow food.
Wilson, who is Sicangu Lakota, says people now know that the food system means more than just a garden. Today, there are over 60 interns involved in advancing the SFSI and running the farm. More than 12 vendors sell regularly at the farmers market and weekly vegetable boxes are created and distributed. There is a year-round greenhouse, egg and honey production, a youth and adult food leadership program, a mobile vendor, food prescription program, preventative disease program, and a partnership with language immersion schools, where the Farm to School nutrition piece is also being cultivated.
Projects like “Boys with Braids” have centered the community’s energies toward integrating nutritional food into the lives of young people. REDCO and Sicangu CDC are also formulating a “Master Plan for Farming and Ranching” on the Rosebud Reservation. Another REDCO project – Wolakota Buffalo Range – has returned over 150 buffalo back to a 28,000-acre range and is on pace to become the largest Indigenous-run bison herd in the country. Conversations surrounding a meat processing plant also have begun.
For Wilson the conversation is starting to come full circle. When he joined the SFSI in 2018 through AmeriCorps VISTA, his first assignment was to research existing food prescription programs. “To be honest, at the time is seemed like something that would be a lot further along in the future,” he says. However, with the support of grants, and partnerships with Sicangu CDC’s health initiative, the Rosebud Diabetes Prevention Program, and the Rosebud Indian Health Service, the program is now up and running and providing families with fresh and healthy alternatives through prescriptions written by medical providers. “We’re one of the first Native communities to have a program like this. Most of the other programs are in urban areas and have corporate sponsors.”
Through all of this progress, Prate says, there has been a learning of the language around food sovereignty. “Farming and planting is very personal and very communal at the same time,” he says. “We can’t just focus on farming or Indigenous foods. We have to paint the full picture of what food means, beyond land leasing. You have to listen to what people care about.”
As part of First Nations’ ongoing relationship with REDCO, First Nations’ A-dae Romero-Briones was honored to sit down with Sicangu Lakota Oyate’s 7Gen Live hosts to share thoughts on how we can practice healthier and more sustainable systems of agriculture that include Indigenous People and what it means to decolonize regenerative agriculture. The podcast is featured here: https://youtu.be/VkxL7t88sCo
An Award-Winning Vision
In 2020, Sicangu CDC – which now heads up the community-based food sovereignty work – translated that listening and their food systems work to date, and applied for the Food Systems Vision Prize sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation and Second Muse, which sought to recognize and support organizations that “inspire real, positive and bold transformation of a specific food system that is actionable, concrete and believed to be attainable by 2050.”
Of the 1,300 organizations around the world that applied, Sicangu CDC was one of 70 that made it to the second round of judging. They then moved on as one of the top 10 finalists – one of only two in the United States. As a finalist they were given the opportunity to go through a 15-week design process that helped them think through their strategy. The result is the 7Gen Food System Vision, a 175-year strategic plan for seven future generations guided by a focus on increasing economic development; building capacity for tribal entrepreneurship and homeownership; and strengthening community development for food, housing, health and education.
The vision provides a roadmap to a destination in 2050 in which all communities throughout Rosebud have equitable access to nutritious foods, the food system fosters and supports sustainable business ventures, and Tribal citizens are empowered through education about local foods and training in healthy eating and cooking and can make informed decisions about their diets.
“Part of our Culture Again”
Wilson says the honor from Rockefeller Foundation was not only an opportunity to formalize a vision for Rosebud, but a way to benefit the broader population. “We were very proud of the work we had been doing, but we knew that in order to achieve the vision we would need to share the vision and build community buy in.”
The pandemic has made that a challenge due to restrictions on gathering, but they have plans for community events in the near future, he says. “We want to show that this isn’t just REDCO or the (Sicangu) CDC’s vision, but that it is a Sicangu vision. We took input from our community and are taking action on it.”
Those plans include ideas such as art installations, community meetings, and pop-up restaurants.
“It is one thing to talk about our vision, but we want people to be able to see it, smell it, and taste it. That’s what the vision is about,” says Wilson.
Wilson also adds that he thought their work could serve as a model for other Indigenous communities. “Eating local is not some bougie concept. Eating local is Indigenous. It’s something that has been a part of our culture and can be a part of our culture again.”
Pride from First Nations
First Nations is honored to have REDCO as a community partner, and to be one of the early-seed funders that helped fuel this food systems vision. And, Prate says they are thankful for the support of First Nations. “The best kind of funding is the kind that says we trust you. Take the money and do what you know is best,” he says. “With First Nations, we can have those conversations.”
He says it’s a model that he wishes all of philanthropy would employ, and that REDCO’s work toward food sovereignty has only underscored the need to address other issues in Indian Country, from social inequity to climate change. “The attention we are getting shows there is a strong need for Indigenous voices to be at the front of these processes for change. It is important that funders put their money where their values are and starting putting funds into these communities,” he says. “When there’s a lot of need, there’s a lot of opportunity. But it takes a lot of resources and people to take advantage of those opportunities.”
To learn more about the Sicangu Food Sovereignty Initiative, visit: www.sicangucdc.org/food-sovereignty.