MINNEAPOLIS — Bison pastrami isn’t a typical school lunch, but it’s a crowd favorite at a Minneapolis preschool.
Fawn Youngbear-Tibbetts — the seemingly always-on-the-go indigenous food coordinator at the Wicoie Nandagikendan Early Childhood Urban Immersion Project — is often found tweaking recipes in the kitchen or offering homemade treats like flourless black bean brownies.
Youngbear-Tibbetts, a longtime Minneapolis resident and member of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe’s White Earth Band, makes it her mission to bring traditional recipes, written several hours each day in the Dakota languages, to the 178 children who visit Wicoie and Ojibwe . She said the dishes not only help Native American students and their families connect with their culture, but also strengthen their diet.
“Part of that is getting their taste buds [used to] eating traditional foods so they want to,” she said. “Our kids are so used to eating all these processed foods — the snack foods, the sugar.” She hopes students will develop a taste for healthier foods to carry through their lives.
In addition to breakfast, lunch and snacks that Wicoie Nandagikendan serves, Youngbear-Tibbetts includes sweet potatoes, fresh fruit, leafy greens, fish and meat from large wild animals like bison, which is extremely low in fat, she said. She recently distributed a donation of 300 pounds of bison to students’ families.
Almost half of Native American children are overweight or obese, due in part to a lack of access to healthy food, researchers from the Indian Health Service found in a study published in 2017.
A 2018 First Nations Development Institute report found that for Native American children, “the most reliable, consistent, and most nutritionally balanced food may be their school or school-related meals,” which Youngbear-Tibbetts has found true.
Many children at the Minneapolis school come from severely limited income families who may not have cars or be able to reach grocery stores. They often rely on convenience stores for shopping. “A lot of our kids only eat at school, so it’s really important to make sure we’re serving the most nutritious meals,” Youngbear-Tibbetts said.
When money is tight, she added, “people tend to buy as many calories as they can with their dollars.”
“These are potato chips, these are ramen, these are highly processed foods because they have more calories and are cheaper to buy,” she said.
Youngbear-Tibbetts said many urban Native American families never learned to cook Native American foods. She has taught students how to harvest wild rice and catch fish. She has also shown her families how to smoke and fillet fish.
“We have several generations of people and some families who don’t even know how to clean a fish or how to cook deer meat,” she said.
Youngbear-Tibbetts grew up near Leech Lake, between the cities of Grand Rapids and Bemidji, Minnesota, where her father taught her to pick berries and vegetables, butcher deer and walleye (a freshwater fish common to the northern United States), and to catch whitefish.
By the age of 10, she said, she could butcher a deer or fillet a fish on her own. At 12, Youngbear-Tibbetts started cooking dinner for her family, in part because “when you cook, you don’t have to do the dishes.”
She began cooking regularly in high school after her mother fell ill.
“When she was diagnosed with diabetes, I took her to her nutrition class,” Youngbear-Tibbetts said. “So that really changed how I ate and how I made food.”
Youngbear-Tibbetts has spent most of her life cooking many of the recipes she serves to students, including venison, walleye, and turkey, bison, and wild rice meatballs. Sometimes she substitutes local ingredients for foods her students already like. For example, she makes tacos with blue corn tortillas and bison instead of flour tortillas and beef.
She also teaches her students how to identify urban-growing foods like crab apples and mulberries and incorporate them into their diets.
Native Americans are nearly three times more likely to develop diabetes than non-Hispanic White Americans and 50% more likely to develop heart disease, according to federal data.
dr Mitchell LaCombe, a primary care physician at Minneapolis’ Indian Health Board, a community health clinic, said his patients regularly encounter these problems.
“I can tell people how to eat healthy, but if they can’t afford it or they can’t afford it or they can get those drugs or those foods, then it doesn’t matter,” LaCombe said.
“The traditional diet seems to be more of a better diet,” LaCombe said, noting that “the incorporation of the Western diet is where things go sour. Especially when you’re dealing with fast food and convenient food that tastes good.”
Ariel Gans and Katherine Huggins are Northwestern University graduate students in the Medill School of Journalism program in Washington, DC.