The Code to Better Health

Policy Improves Food Systems, Nutrition and Access at Turtle Mountain

When one thinks of good nutrition and positive health outcomes, one might think of food and access. But an essential component to bringing all these elements together is something people may not consider: Food policy. “Our food code is a map,” says Anita Frederick, president of Tribal Nation Research Group (TNRG). “Having a better understanding of it is the only way for us to have more intentionality when it comes to food systems and how we handle food.” In the past year, with funding coming in part through First Nations’ Fertile Ground Advocacy Campaign, TNRG has been able to invest in this roadmap to improve the local food systems and food economy of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa community.

This is part of the work of TNRG, a relatively new 501c3 tribal organization that acts as the central data repository for the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa in Belcourt, North Dakota. In this role, the organization pursues data collection and research projects that complement the goals of the community and works with tribal leadership, community members and other partners in carrying out the projects and strategically addressing the findings. Among those projects has been a look at the health of the community and the status of Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa’s food policy and code.

Building on Knowledge

The work began in 2017 with TNRG’s Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Food Sovereignty Initiative, which was also funded with support from First Nations’ Fertile Ground Advocacy Campaign, an initiative designed to advance new policies and innovative, policymaking approaches that will benefit Native American nutrition and health.

According to Frederick, as part of the food sovereignty initiative, TNRG performed a comprehensive food assessment, which revealed many aspects of the community’s relationship and food.

“What the food assessment told us is what types of food do people choose? Do they have enough food for the week? What are the sizes of families? Do larger families have more struggles? Where do people find their food?” Frederick explains.

Indeed, it was found that many tribal members were interested in growing foods and having access to healthy, fresh food, but did not have the means to grow their own or could not afford to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables. Further, many tribal citizens did not have enough money to buy food, many would go hungry because they didn’t have enough food for the month. People also weren’t understanding what traditional foods are. A common perception was that “bullets” (a boiled meatball) and “bangs” (a form of frybread) are traditional food, but in actually, traditional foods are vegetables, wild berries, apples, fish, and wild game.

The assessment also revealed challenges in the community. There was a lack of prioritization from local Tribal Government, with the need to control food systems in direct competition with other community issues such as high unemployment, rampant drug abuse, and heightened crimes. Another challenge came in educating the community about alternative food resources other than buying from grocery stores. People wanted access to locally grown food, but they needed resources and support for what that looks like.

The food sovereignty initiative also included a policy review, which revealed that Turtle Mountain did not have any policies in place regarding food and the food system nor was it under any ordinances for food development. The EPA had some laws addressing chemical use in agriculture, but there had been no enforcement or penalty in Turtle Mountain’s Tribal Court system.

Launching the Turtle Mountain Food Code Initiative

TNRG presents at its Community Food Code Forum in March 2021.

The sum of this knowledge showed there were many vulnerabilities in Turtle Mountain’s food system that were having a direct impact on the health and wellness of its tribal citizens. And many of those challenges stemmed from the lack of quality, comprehensive food policy and food code. Based on this, TRNG launched the Turtle Mountain Food Code Initiative, a project to promote improved Turtle Mountain community health by mobilizing community support for the development of tribal food policies.

This project supported enacting tribal food policies by developing draft policies based on community input and policy research. The aims were both to respond to issues identified in the food assessment, including cost issues, limited access to fresh foods, and concerns about obesity and diabetes, and to address cultural uses of traditional foods, food production, and safe food handling.

“Food is a huge thing for us,” Frederick explains. “What we’re trying to do with a food system is to organize the process. We wanted to get more of the community involved, and be able to more forward with a comprehensive system.”

Based on this, the project team at TRNG convened people throughout the community – restaurant owners, farmers, grocery store owners, town council members, and all food stakeholders – and set out to get feedback and draft policies on issues the community brought up: Egg handling, meat delivery, local game, commercial greenhouses, milk shortages, and more. Through the convenings, community members were able to come together to address barriers to food and access by collectively performing cost analyses, feasibility studies, and research.

The Power of Policy

Part of TNRG’s focus on improving food policy is to help make healthy food accessible and provide education to the Turtle Mountain community. This food demonstration presented by the Turtle Mountain Healthy Foods Coalition provided recipe cards in both the Ojibwa Language and English.

Frederick explains that food policy and food code are often associated with extra work or as complicated steps that slow the pace of food systems. But in actuality, establishing a robust food policy and food code can streamline a community’s processes and open doors for not only improving access but also inspiring innovation. Food policy puts in place rules and procedures to cover everything from kitchen operations to distribution processes. And once those rules are established, it becomes easier for new food products or ideas to take hold.

Frederick says that in the past, for example, if a person wanted to start a jelly business, they might soon be thwarted with the tasks of accessing a commercial kitchen, securing the proper certification, documenting handling processes, and getting a business license. “But food policy and code put a plan and structure in place so you’re not starting at ground zero,” Frederick explains. “It gives you a place to start. If you have an idea, you can refer to the code, and get started.”

Through the Turtle Mountain Food Code Initiative, TNRG has been able to not only involve the community in setting policy, but also share with more people why it is so important. Frederick says they can now show how these policies and code make food access and economic development simpler and fairer to everyone involved. Moreover, she says, it ignites ideas. “People can see, this has been done before, and that means they might be able to do it too.”

A Code for the Future

Frederick says many next steps surrounding the Turtle Mountain Food Code Initiative have been delayed due to the pandemic, but that, gradually, the convenings are starting up again to further advance and finalize their work. She says the potential of policy will only get more powerful as more challenges are addressed, and more documentation takes hold. As just one example, policy might be developed to address additional health-related food issues, such reducing consumption of “junk” food in schools or taxing items like sugary drinks. “We are just getting started,” she says.

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