Revitalizing Food Sovereignty with the Hoopa Valley Tribe
Fung Fellows teamed up with EFCWest to empower community control of health outcomes
This past January, the Fung Fellows embarked on a semester-long project with the help of an industry partner. Fung Fellows from the Conservation Track formed a team composed of Angel Lee [Public Health & Data Science], Seojin Choi [Landscape Architecture], Sofia Schnurer [Middle Eastern Languages & Cultures], Shreya Aviri [American Cultures], and Celine Wang [Integrative Biology]. The team partnered with Sarah Diefendorf from EFCWest, a company that “empowers vulnerable populations, delivers innovative leadership training and builds community capacity in the United States and internationally.”
The project is centered around a food sovereignty initiative aimed at improving the health outcomes and self-sufficiency of the Hoopa Valley Tribe, where diabetes and cardiovascular diseases are prevalent due to a lack of access to nutritious food, generational trauma, and numerous other social determinants of health.
The team is working with the Hoopa Valley Tribe to design a cooking curriculum and nutritional science program for local high school students using ingredients from commodity boxes, training instructors from the community in collaboration with partners like Edible Schoolyard Project and 18 Reasons, and addressing social determinants of health that has hindered the community’s access to healthy eating (e.g. lack of transportation to obtain healthy food/ classes).
The team has also been invited to attend the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) Region #2 Conference sponsored by the UC Berkeley American Indian Graduate Program where they will present their project, answer questions, and highlight areas in which they need support moving forward.
Here, we had the chance to catch up with the group and learn more about how their project came together, as well how the project has evolved since.
How did your project team assemble and coordinate with EFCWest?
Our project team formed out of each members’ desire to learn more about the Native and Indigenous cultures that exist in the US. Most of us had experiences mostly limited to what we learned in our education system, with little to no real knowledge of how modern tribal members live in today’s world.
We met our industry partner, EFCWest, through the Fung Fellowship at the start of our project. Through them, we had the privilege of getting to know Councilmember Jill Sherman-Warne of the Hoopa Valley Tribe. Jill opened our eyes to the lifestyles of members on the reservation and generously hosted us over the weekend during this year for a site visit.
Why did you feel it was particularly important to focus on and meet with tribal leaders of the Hoopa Valley Tribe?
The decision to focus on and meet with tribal leaders of the Hoopa Valley Tribe was made because we recognized that they were the most knowledgeable about the unique issues their community faced. Tribal leaders like Councilmember Jill have deep insights into the historical, cultural, and social dynamics that shape the tribe’s current conditions.
They have also been at the forefront of efforts to address these issues, so their perspectives and experiences are invaluable to understanding the complexities of the situation. Moreover, working closely with tribal leaders is a matter of respect and ethical practice. We wanted to ensure that our project was community-driven and responsive to the tribe’s needs and desires, rather than imposed from an outside perspective.
We believe that solutions to problems faced by a community should be developed in partnership with that community, as they are the ones who best understand their own needs.
How did you come to the decision to focus on food sovereignty and how do you define the term for the purposes of your project?
Our decision to focus on food sovereignty came about through our conversations with Jill discussing the longstanding health issues that affect the majority of tribal members — hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular issues, etc.
Their health has been significantly compromised after facing centuries of colonialism and Westernization; a significant amount of traditional knowledge has been forgotten due to government policies amounting up to what was essentially cultural genocide.
We wanted to shape our solution around the most direct connection people had to their health — food. With this in mind, we chose to focus on promoting food sovereignty within the Hoopa Valley Tribe.
Food sovereignty is more than empowering people through food — it’s giving them power back over their traditions, culture, and lives.
What did you learn from your conversations with the Hoopa Valley tribal leader?
Many, many things. We learned how prevalent health issues like diabetes and hypertension are the result of a myriad of social factors. For example, the remoteness of the tribe meant that during the peak of the pandemic, tribal members were unable to access grocery stores as they were either closed, too far, or out of stock, so many families relied upon the gas station as the main food source.
The Hoopa Valley Tribe is also traditionally a fishing tribe, but because of climate change and decreasing access to the river due to federal government restrictions, tribal members have less and less fish to consume. The tribal leader expressed to us that this is a concern.
“If kids don’t grow up eating these fish, they aren’t used to its flavor when they grow up so they wouldn’t like it.”
We really saw how numerous social factors played a significant role in causing health problems and the gradual loss of tradition.
Why did you decide to create a cooking curriculum and nutritional science program?
When creating our cooking curriculum and nutritional science program, one of the fundamental aspects we considered was the impact of generational trauma on the diet and health of the Hoopa Valley Tribe. This trauma, passed down from one generation to the next, has deep roots in the colonization, forced relocation, cultural genocide, and systemic racism experienced by Native Americans over centuries.
Traditional dietary practices were disrupted as Native communities were forcibly moved to reservations and given government rations, which were often nutritionally poor. These actions led to a radical shift in eating habits from fresh, local, and nutritionally balanced foods to processed and canned foods high in sugar, salt, and unhealthy fats.
The legacy of this forced dietary change is still evident today, as many Indigenous communities struggle with issues of food insecurity, lack of access to fresh and healthy foods, and high rates of diet-related diseases such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.
Has the curriculum and/or program been implemented in any high schools?
We had the opportunity to participate in a site visit at a high school where representatives from 18 Reasons, along with school supervisors, taught an after-school cooking class. The lesson of the day was making grilled cheese sandwiches with pesto, a simple yet tasty recipe that the students could easily replicate at home.
This experience gave us valuable insight into the dynamics of teaching cooking in a school setting. It was especially rewarding to hear from the students about how they took these recipes home and shared them with their families.
These anecdotes underscored the potential of our curriculum not only to equip students with practical skills and nutritional knowledge, but also to influence the eating habits and health of their families and, by extension, the broader community.
How does the curriculum tie into food sovereignty and improving health outcomes of the Hoopa Valley Tribe?
We incorporate education on nutrition science within the curriculum, equipping students with the knowledge to make informed dietary choices.
This has a direct impact on improving their health outcomes and reducing the prevalence of diet-related diseases.
Hands-on cooking lessons form a crucial part of the program, providing practical skills for students to prepare healthy meals. This decreases the reliance on processed foods and encourages healthier eating habits.
Sustainability is interwoven into the curriculum, teaching students about traditional practices like gardening and foraging. We want this project to ignite the high school students’ interest in cooking and therefore take ownership over what they eat.
Since we look to have local community members to be the instructors, this project would be a great way to facilitate inter-generational exchange of knowledge and experience. This strengthens community bonds and ensures the continuity of cultural and culinary traditions.
What is the biggest takeaway from working on this project?
I think my teammates would all agree that the biggest takeaway from this project is broadened perspective and relationship with the Hoopa Valley community. While working on this project, we have learned so much from Jill about the history of oppression and the brokenness of the current system.
We also had a chance to research and reach out to experts on topics we knew little about prior to this semester such as the elements of food sovereignty. To help develop our curriculum and prototype classroom, we reached out to and are currently collaborating with 18 Reasons, a nonprofit in San Francisco that teaches low-cost, healthy cooking classes in their community. We have also been lucky enough to gain insights on our course design from The Edible Schoolyard Project started by Alice Waters.
Furthermore, visiting the Hoopa Valley and conversing with Jill, Yolanda (resident), and Leslie (Jill’s sister) helped us to dismantle the societal bias and assumptions that we went to Hoopa Valley with. Their hospitality and candidness truly inspired us and gave us a conviction to continue to work with them past this semester to bring forth a positive change.