Stocking the Pantry: How the Oneida Nation is Fighting Hunger on the Rez

Marlon Skenandore knows all too well what it is like to grow up in a home without an adequate amount of nutritious food. “I came from poverty. I know how it feels to pay your rent and wonder if you will have enough money left to buy groceries,” says the 37-year-old Oneida Nation Native and father of four recalling the stigma many tribal members experience around food insecurity.

Marlon Skenandore (right), Oneida pantry manager, poses with Lynn Summers, a volunteer and veteran.

Today, Skenandore is manager of the Oneida Emergency Food Pantry and says he is grateful to the Creator for his good fortune. “This job changed my life. I feel like I’ve been given a second chance. Given my background, helping feed other people is what I was meant to do.”

The Oneida Emergency Food Pantry was launched in 2017 after tribal member Nancy Barton stepped up to do something about food insecurity on the reservation, a widespread problem that she believed was not being addressed appropriately. Its mission statement is simple: “We are an engaged community that fights hunger together.”

Initially, the pantry served 12 people daily. Today, the pantry serves more than 700 people a month and receives around 200,000 pounds of food donations a year from many sources, such as Festival Foods, Fresh Thyme Market, local gardeners, Hunger Task Force, and Feeding Wisconsin, a statewide network of food banks. The Menominee Nation also shares its excess food with Oneida, and vice versa.

“This program is one-of-a-kind because there are no income guidelines, and we never turn people away. As for non-food items, like diapers and baby wipes, if we get them for free, you get them for free,” says Skenandore. The only caveat is that at least one household member must be an enrolled Oneida tribal member.

The pantry also receives non-food items, such as toys, books, and household items. “We’ve become a hub for drop-offs, where people say, ‘Just take it!’” Skenandore estimates the monetary value of all donations is about $800,000 a year.

The Oneida food pantry is open to tribal members Tuesdays and Thursdays.

The Oneida Nation was one of 13 Native-led tribes and organizations to receive grants averaging $35,000 each under First Nations’ “Setting the Table for a Healthy Food System in Indian Country” project, part of the organization’s Food Pantry Initiative to strengthen tribal pantries and food banks. The grant was made possible by the Walmart Foundation.

According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, 25% of Native Americans face food insecurity ─ and that percentage is even higher in rural communities. The Food Pantry Initiative underscores First Nations’ commitment to end food scarcity and help tribes, like the nearly 17,000-member Oneida Nation, provide an abundance of healthy food for their members.

How the grant will be spent

The $35,000 First Nations grant has come at the perfect time. Skenandore says demand for food has been record-breaking, due to the recent spike in inflation. “We’re starting to see people we have never seen before. It’s been absolutely insane,” he says, adding that the improved quality of the food has all but eliminated the former stigma associated with food pantries.

Clients come once a week on Tuesday and Thursday to pick up three days of whole, nutritious food, such as fresh produce and meats, as well as shelf-stable products like peanut butter, cereal, and canned tuna.

“I am using this grant money to increase the availability of traditional, fresh foods and meals for Oneida tribal members requiring nutritional support,” explains Skenandore.

A tribal member stops by to pick up free food.

His plan includes buying foods from farmers on and off the reservation and developing ongoing relationships with them to strengthen the local food economy and help farmers grow their businesses. “Once you create relationships with them, they create more relationships with you.” He also purchases traditional foods from the Oneida Cannery, such as jams, jellies, soups, and white corn, and grass-fed Black Angus beef and bison from Oneida Nation Farms.

To date, the food pantry manager has sealed a deal with two Oneida farmers, setting up purchase orders for up to $2,000 for deliveries of wild rice, spinach, beans, radishes, eggplant, cucumbers, maple-sugared pecans, and more. “It’s a really good, small start to something greater,” he says proudly.

The grant has also helped revitalize the pantry’s community garden, another source for nutritious, whole foods. Skenandore has invested in garden supplies and hired six tribal members to plant, harvest and clean up the space. “Our garden is looking amazing out there!”

With only two paid staffers at the emergency pantry, Skenandore relies heavily on volunteers. One volunteer in particular, Nancy Skenandore, has been working at the emergency pantry since June of 2017. “This pantry is powered by volunteers who work about 250 hours a month,” says Skenandore. But he could use more people willing to lend a hand. “We always have just enough.”

Lastly, the First Nations grant is helping Skenandore teach tribal members about the importance of good nutrition. He has developed four educational videos that have been uploaded to social media. And the Oneida community is taking notice. Skenandore says that followers to the pantry’s Facebook page are steadily increasing.

One Facebook follower posted this encouraging testimonial: “Thank you for the food pantry. Because of it, I have been making healthier food choices.”

Collaboration with other tribes on elder food boxes

Elder food boxes contain more than 10 food items, mostly fresh produce.

The Oneida Emergency Food Pantry is also part of a statewide food distribution network comprised of contributions from all 11 federally recognized tribes in Wisconsin.

The network assembles 1,800 elder food boxes twice a month divided among the tribes. The Oneida Nation gets 400 of those boxes twice a month filled mostly with produce that elders on social security would not be able to afford, like fire-roasted, handpicked wild rice at $15 a bag.

“We also get awesome produce from the nearby Feeding America chapter. They donate their excess food to this program, which can be anywhere from 1,000 to 1,500 pounds of fresh produce ─ our most popular item ─ just picked the week before,” explains Skenandore.

Sometimes he gets calls out of the blue from unexpected food sources. One day, a logistics company called and said, “Hey, do you want $1,500 worth of pickles?”

The road ahead

Skenandore stays very busy with everyday tasks in what he calls the most secure job ever: “This pantry is a tribal mandate. So even if the casino shut down, we would stay up and running.”

Even so, the pantry manager still has time to look ahead. “My goal is to get the community garden to the point where we can harvest 1,000 pounds of food from it a year and pay community members to help out.” He also aims to increase the supply of traditional foods in packages from 10-15% to 30-50%.

The community garden sits across the street from the pantry and is a reliable source for fresh produce.

Through it all, Skenandore never forgets his overall mission. “My priority is, and always will be, to get the food into the Oneida pantry and directly into the hands of my clients who need it most.”

Skenandore has much to be proud of. In the last five years, the Oneida Emergency Food Pantry has provided healthy, whole foods for 1,200 to 1,400 Oneida families. “As someone with no experience in the food pantry world, what I have been able to do so far is just mind-boggling to me,” he says.

But it is the passion for the Oneida Nation that keeps him going. “I love my community. It’s where I grew up, where I went to school, where I live. This is my home.”