NEWS

Lakota gardening initiative becomes oasis in multi-county food desert in South Dakota

Dominik Dausch
Farm Forum

If you live in one of the rural communities on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, you are likely not making daily grocery runs.

If you live in Porcupine, South Dakota, you are driving an hour and a half to Rapid City or Chadron, Nebraska, but you have to be well-equipped for the trip.

That means you can afford the gas and your car can afford the normal wear and tear. If you live further into the countryside, your tires will have to survive poorly maintained gravel roads for at least a portion of the drive.

Chance Weston, an Oglala Lakota tribe member, says these are real concerns for the average Pine Ridge resident.

"We really need to change that," he adds.

That's not to say there is nowhere to buy food on the reservation. But there is a problem with finding good food, Weston said.

Nearly the entirety of Pine Ridge is considered a "food desert," a variable term for an area where a substantial number of residents do not have easy access to a supermarket or a grocery store, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Lakota Food Sovereignty Coalition is the Oglala Lakota response to food insecurity. Formed in 2007, the community-centered group has been giving tribal members the tools to grow their own foods.

The coalition is part of a broader gardening initiative, aided by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture and state universities, to help people on the Pine Ridge, Rosebud and Cheyenne River Reservations take health back into their own hands—an important role in maintaining tribal sovereignty.

A subpar shopping situation

Some families in rural America make weekly or bi-weekly shopping excursions to the nearest city due to either the lack of an in-town supermarket or to save money at a cheaper, urban grocer.

People on the reservation make a similar trip, but Weston says the circumstances are less than ideal.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Access Research Atlas shows the majority of Pine Ridge Indian Reservation - the three central counties - is considered a food desert. 

Purple colors indicate a low vehicle access region, while the bright green colors indicate a "low-income census tracts.

Jackson and Bennett Counties, which make up the eastern half of the reservation, are considered "low-income census tracts," where the majority of residents live more than 10 miles from where they could buy groceries and either have a poverty rate greater than 20% or the median family income is less than 80% of the state or metropolitan area.

Most South Dakota reservations, except for parts of Pine Ridge, Yankton and Lake Traverse Reservations, also fall under the low-income category.

Additionally, most of Oglala Lakota County is designated a "low vehicle access tract"; a significant share of residents live more than 20 miles from a supermarket in western Pine Ridge. Rosebud Indian Reservation is considered a low-income and low-access area.

Pine Ridge Reservation has three grocers: one at Sharps Corner, one in Kyle and another in the actual town of Pine Ridge, and it is roughly 43 times the size of Sioux Falls, the state's largest and most populace city.

The Minnehaha County seat, by comparison, is 79.93 square miles and has dozens of grocers and supermarkets minutes apart.

On Pine Ridge, food comes at a premium without the premium quality.

"The selection's not very great. [Reservation stores] have lots of processed items that are very heavy in carbs and sugars and are very limited in terms of healthy items," Weston says.

Weston paints a picture of what this looks like.

"You can fill the child seat of a shopping cart with produce and the actual cart with junk food and they would probably cost the same," he said.

Of the three on-reservation options, the town of Pine Ridge offers the largest selection of goods, but the fruits and vegetables on the wetwall are usually of lower quality compared to what urban stores offer, Weston says.

Weston says Pine Ridge residents, who are sparsely distributed across the reservation - about five people per square mile - have to go off-reservation for decent, healthy foods, which are becoming less affordable due to inflation.

This imposes a financial burden on rural families: making the trip is, at most, a weekly occurrence where groceries have to be bought in bulk. This can prove especially expensive for people from Pine Ridge, where per-capita income is among the lowest in the nation.

Inclement weather can become another setback when it causes the roads to become undrivable, forcing families to stay home and subsist on what little they already have.

The Oglala oasis

Food initiatives are a community response to the issue of low-access to food.

Several vegetables ripen at Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation's community garden.

The garden was established by Lakota Food Sovereignty Initiative members in 2008 and has grown to include an orchard, a deep compost mulch system and a geothermal greenhouse.

Thunder Valley CDC Food Sovereignty Initiative planted the seed, so to speak, in 2008, when the group started with a small garden at their grassroots, affordable housing community.

Since then, the project has slowly blossomed into a complete farming operation, replete with a chicken farm, orchard and vegetable garden.

Between the nearly 500 chickens that lay 26 dozen eggs a day and the 100 trees that produce chokecherries, plums and buffaloberries, there's enough food to feed 800 people throughout the year, says Weston, who is also director of the initiative.

A geothermal greenhouse also grows common vegetables, like onions and tomatoes, throughout the summer, and there is funding set aside for a community kitchen to be built this fall.

"We're trying to provide access to healthy foods, but also at a lower [cost]," Weston says.

While their overall harvest is only enough sustain a fraction of the population, it remains an oasis where access to food is low.

Rebuilding the landscape

"We want to leave this land better than we found it," Weston said in a phone call, quoting his grandfather. The sound of digitally-rendered sound of chickens clucking and crowing squawked over his voice during our interview.

To Weston, it's important that every part of what they reap from their farm should be used in some way.

Two chickens roam between the trees near Thunder Valley CDC's affordable housing project. Chokecherry and buffaloberry trees are grown at the community garden and are used for medicinal purposes.

To that end, initiative members utilizes rotational grazing, a system of pasturing, to achieve this. The 1.5-acre poultry farm is broken up into several "paddocks," or enclosures.

The chickens forage on plants in one paddock, which is supplemented by some bird feed and cover crops, before moving on to the next. Their left-behind manure fertilizes the remaining flora, which grows slightly better each cycle.

Weston says it is extraordinarily difficult to farm on Pine Ridge. Most of the soil is comprised of clay, which holds moisture very well, but hardly shares said moisture with crops and plants.

"We're trying to improve things that have been neglected for a really long time," Weston says. He adds the land was overgrazed by livestock in the past, which stressed the natural grasses to the point where the land eventually became unsuitable for farming.

From Saharan to Sovereign

The Thunder Valley CDC Food Sovereignty Initiative incorporates aspects of the Lakota way of life. Initiative members teach people in the community how to independently grow their own food, which Weston calls "liberating."

"Our main mission is to empower the people," Weston says. "Regenerative food systems … improve health and create prosperity."

Education is also rooted into their efforts: community members, as well as children attending Lakota Immersion Montessori classes, are taught the basics of gardening entirely in the Lakota language.

The initiative is primarily funded  by grants funded, and Sicangu Lakota on the Rosebud Indian Reservation and people on Cheyenne River Indian Reservation also have successful gardening initiatives.

Dominik Dausch is the agriculture and environment reporter for the Argus Leader and editor of Farm Forum. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook @DomDNP and send news tips to ddausch@gannett.com.