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Program creates access to healthy foods, rebuilds traditional foodways

Loretta Livingston and Joy Schelble show off the award they received at the MOSES Conference for the work they’ve been doing with the Bad River Food Sovereignty Program. Photo by Laurie Schneider.

By Clare Hintz

Editor’s Note: This is one of three stories about the recipients of the 2020 Changemaker awards, presented earlier this month at the MOSES Organic Farming Conference. This new award recognizes people in the organic farming and food movement who are creatively overcoming systemic challenges to nurture a thriving agricultural future for all. Click here to recommend someone for the 2021 award.

Loretta Livingston and Joy Schelble represent the Bad River Food Sovereignty Project and were honored as 2020 Changemakers at the recent MOSES Conference. These emerging practitioners have demonstrated significant leadership to empower others in their community. Their work serves as a reminder of the social fabric needed for vibrant local food systems. Their efforts also embody the adage that food is medicine. Loretta and Joy work hard to demonstrate the power of food as a commons rather than a commodity.

The Anishinaabe have been cultivating vegetable gardens for hundreds of years along the shores of Lake Superior (and thousands of years before that in what is now the eastern U.S.). These gardens, along with many other gifts of the northern temperate forests provided an abundance of food. Through displacement, land loss to settlers, and cultural attack, the knowledge of these life-ways was diminished.

Currently, the Bad River tribe faces a disproportionate prevalence of diabetes and other diet-related illness. Food insecurity, loss of wild-crafting and gardening skills, and the availability of cheap calories over healthy food have been major issues on the reservation. Low incomes that require multiple jobs to get by have limited tribal members’ ability to grow their own foods.

But not all wisdom has been lost, and the Bad River Food Sovereignty Project has been working to reverse these trends. Before joining the project, Loretta Livingston was a Tribal Council Chair and an attorney. Joy Schelble has a degree in botany and is the 4-H Youth Development Coordinator with the University of Wisconsin Extension, one of only a small number of extension educators working with a tribe in the U.S.

“I have gained many insights,” Joy said about her work with the project. She explained she has “a better understanding of history and present challenges faced by Indigenous people, a deeper personal relationship with the land and plants, an abundance of knowledge and insights into Ojibwe traditional medicine and food harvest, preparation, and storage, and a greater sense of community and connection.”

When asked about early keys to implementation, Joy said, “The tribe prioritizing this program with a paid director position and committing a facility and grounds to the program has made it possible to build on our learning and engage more people in the program over time. Loretta’s leadership of the Bad River Food Sovereignty program is exceptional and that has everything to do with our success.”

The project has many initiatives. “We provide opportunities for community members to engage in gardening activities by volunteering at program high tunnels or actually growing their own food and caring for their own plot in a community garden with assistance by program staff,” Loretta explained. “Our ‘Dine & Learn’ sessions reintroduce traditional skills, revitalize traditional harvesting methods, re-teach community members that food grown by them is more nutritious and delicious, and re-embrace the concept of sharing and the interdependence between members, animals, plants, and the environment,” she added.

Joy involves youth in traditional plant harvests, spring spearfishing followed by a “Dine & Learn” on filleting and cooking the fish they catch, and wild ricing followed by a session on processing. She supports the weekly lacrosse games at the schools. Joy and Loretta have successfully encouraged the youth to grow, process, and enjoy a sugar-free tea that they have grown themselves.

“We also have a ‘kid’ high tunnel that teaches youth about preparing seeds and growing beds, planting, and weeding, watering, harvesting, and processing crops,” Loretta said.

The project includes seasonal events around traditional harvests, such as making maple syrup, processing honey and beeswax, smoking fish, smoking venison, annual pruning at the orchard, and more.

“Processing includes not only the drying process itself but the processing into useable forms of teas, peppers, medicinal tinctures, salves/creams, and so on,” Loretta explained. The project also teaches members how to care for chickens and bees, and butcher farm animals for food to distribute to needy community members.

All this activity centers around two small hoophouses, an outdoor garden and small orchard, a medicine garden, and a learning center with a kitchen. The small setting belies their outsized transformative influence.
Loretta identified high tunnels early on as a way to help deal with erratic weather in northern Wisconsin. “High tunnels provide needed respite for plants from the weather extremes,” she explained.

Joy agreed. “High tunnel food systems build resilience into food production so we are able to navigate irregular weather patterns, torrential rains, deep cold, and other abnorms of climate change. Also, the personal relationship we are restoring with the plants and re-understanding the gifts the plants are willing to share with us brings us hope.”

Kids from the Mashkiiziibii Boys and Girls Club and other community youth programs join the Bad River Food Sovereignty staff every season. Recently, the Bad River Food Sovereignty youth program partnered with the Ashland County “SPARK” program on a popsicle project to learn how to create a small-scale local food business—and healthier treats.

Loretta has witnessed powerful changes through the program. “I’ve seen spiritual growth on the part of at least 50 community youth who have consistently participated in the weekly lacrosse games at the school. Spiritual growth leads to development or enhancement of self-image, self-confidence, and self-esteem.”

The project also maintains a site at the Elder Center in the community. Elders who regularly attend the Elderly Feeding Program have become increasingly interested in gardening, eating food grown in community gardens or on the program site, Loretta said. “They are using teas made from plants grown at the program site to address illnesses such as winter colds, coughs, heart disease, and promote liver and kidney health,” she added.
Joy and Loretta have a clear vision for the program’s future.

“For the immediate future—say at least the next three years—I want an annual increase in the number of community members who consistently work their own gardens or garden plots in community gardens, attend gardening and processing events at the program site and process their own produce for home consumption,” Loretta said. “For the longer-term future—say four to five years from now—the development of a plan to utilize Ursula’s Farm site (a farm donated back to the tribe) to raise livestock including pigs, maybe beef or buffalo, and chickens; an evaluation of the viability of the current orchard and existing fruit trees; and, the development of a business plan to implement an active farm.”

Joy’s vision includes ideas for getting all that the program produces into the hands of more community members. “We will distribute our food via programs in the community such as the elder dining program, build on our farmers market, and explore other distribution options such as the community grocery store and restaurant.”

“If the systems we rely on to feed and heal ourselves become compromised, we have what we need to take care of ourselves,” Joy added. “Ojibwe have always had this understanding and part of our job is to help people nourish and revive this part of themselves.”

Despite the impact of climate change on the Lake Superior region, traditional plants continue to grow in woodlands. “I see hope in that,” Loretta explained. “Hope that medicines that do not poison modern water systems or feed the industrial, financial complex, will continue to be available. Nevertheless, as the pressure on traditional plants increases, more people need to be more mindful of their impact on their environment. Growing our own plants and herbs is one way to address the added pressure.”

Clare Hintz runs Elsewhere Farm, a production perennial polyculture supporting winter and summer CSAs and other markets in northern Wisconsin. She serves on the MOSES Board of Directors and is editor-in-chief of the Journal of Sustainability Education.

From the March| April 2020 Issue

 

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