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Native American Dakota Tribes Fighting High Prices, Poor Food Quality

There’s only one grocery store on the reservation, says Lisa Hope-Heth, but she refuses to shop there

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Tribal Dakota people riding horses, courtesy: Wikimedia commons
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South Dakota, March 25: South Dakota’s Crow Creek Indian Reservation is home to the descendants of the Dakota people, who thrived in Minnesota before they were forced onto the reservation in the 1860s. Crow Creek sits in the center of the state along the Missouri River, and its more than 1,000 square kilometers stretch across three of the poorest counties in the United States.

There’s only one grocery store on the reservation, says Lisa Hope-Heth, but she refuses to shop there.

“A lot of the prices are too high. Some of the meat is not always fresh. And the bread – you know how in some larger stores when bread doesn’t sell and it gets stale, they take it off the shelf? I sometimes think that we get that bread.”

She once worked as a meat cutter, so she knows old hamburger when she sees it. She also recognizes when meat that has been sitting on the shelf too long is reground with slightly fresher meat, then repackaged and put back on the shelf for sale.

When Hope-Heth needs groceries, she must either drive 40 kilometers south to the town of Chamberlain or 100 kilometers northwest to Pierre.

“For people that do not have vehicles, they don’t have that choice,” she said. “They have to go to the local places. If they want to go farther, they have to hire somebody to take them. And they’ll either have to pay $50 for gas for the ride or pay in EBTs and groceries.”

EBTs, she explains, are electronic benefits transfers. The U.S. government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program provides food benefits to low-income individuals and families. These are transferred electronically and accessed via a plastic credit card.

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On Crow Creek and elsewhere in Indian Country, EBTs are used like currency to pay for favors or services. And this means that beneficiaries often run out of food money before the month is up.

In 2014, in an effort to eliminate food insecurity among First Peoples, the First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) began a year-long study on food pricing. They recruited volunteers to monitor prices of basic food commodities such as milk, bread, ground beef and eggs on eight reservations across the country.

“What we found was that the price of food was higher, which is a funny thing, since reservation communities have much lower income and are much more likely to be in poverty,” said A-dae Romero-Briones, an associate director of research and policy for Native Agriculture at FNDI.

At the time of the study, for example, a gallon (3.79 liters) of milk was priced an average of $3.76 in urban centers across America, but one South Dakota grocery store, was charging a dollar more. Similarly, a store in New Mexico was charging Cochiti Pueblo people nearly $1.50 more than the national average price for a loaf of bread.

“We are now in the process of trying to figure out why this is,” Romero-Briones said. “Price tells us a whole lot of different things about the market. The cost of shipping food to remote areas is one likely culprit.”

That may, in part, explain the dearth of fresh fruits and vegetables on Crow Creek.

“You can usually find potatoes, apples or tomatoes,” said Tally Monteau-Colombe, executive director of Hunkpati Investment, a nonprofit group that works to eliminate poverty on Crow Creek. “That’s what they call ‘fresh food.’” Everything else comes in cans.

The Crow Creek tribe, with help from the U.S Department of Health and Human Services’ Indian Health Service, provides diabetic tribal members $10 vouchers every month to buy vegetables.

“But if they have to pay $4.39 for a pound (.45 kg) of tomatoes, that $10 doesn’t go far,” Monteau-Columbe said.

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‘Weapon of health destruction’

When Native Americans were driven from their homelands, they lost control of healthful and complex food systems that had sustained them for tens of thousands of years. The U.S. Army provided them with basic commodities — refined wheat flour, salt, sugar and lard, ingredients that were alien to Native diets but went on to become fry bread, a salty, fried dough that is found on reservations across the country, what Romero-Briones calls a “weapon of health destruction.”

“I love the stuff – in moderation, of course. And it speaks to the ingenuity of the grandmas who figured out how to make worthless flour, salt, and lard from commodity baskets into something we now charge $5 or more for at public gatherings,” she said.

Today, at least one third of Native Americans live on reservations and depend on government-issued commodities and inexpensive packaged food, high in fat, salt and chemicals, which has contributed to alarming rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

Alarmed, Crow Creek, like many tribal communities across the country, is now working to regain control of its food supply. Hunkpati last year launched a fresh food initiative on the reservation to get the community to grow its own produce and promote healthier eating.

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“We set up a community garden and orchard, which we hoped would be enough to sustain the community, and hired local youth to take care of the garden,” said Monteau-Columbe.

For a while, the garden thrived, but when funding ran short, they could no longer afford to pay for its upkeep.

“Now it’s defunct. But we still kept the orchard going,” she said.

Today, the tribe is able to harvest its own chokecherries and wild plums, staples of the traditional Dakota diet. Hunkpati has held classes to teach tribe members how to make traditional foods, like wochapi, a thick berry sauce served with game or fry bread, and wasna, a pounded mix of lean dried meat, chokecherries and grains. Portable and packed with protein and natural sugar, it was a mainstay of the original Dakota diet.

The Crow Creek Fresh Food Initiative also provides support to food entrepreneurs and others who want to grow their own food by providing garden kits and plowing and tilling services. It hosts a farmer’s market, selling locally-grown produce at affordable prices, even accepting EBT cards instead of cash. And this summer, thanks to new funding, the group hopes to be able to construct a series of raised-bed vegetable gardens and, if they are really lucky, build a community greenhouse. (VOA)

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U.S. Welcomes Pakistan’s Actions Towards Peace in Afghanistan

Pakistani officials say their influence over the Taliban has significantly declined over the years because the insurgents have gained control over large areas of Afghanistan

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Imran Khan, Pakistan, Afghanistan,
Pakistan"s Prime Minister Imran Khan is seen during talks in Beijing, China, VOA

The United States said Saturday it welcomes actions Pakistan is taking to promote a negotiated solution to the war in neighboring Afghanistan.

The acknowledgement came a day after Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan announced his country has arranged another round of Washington’s peace talks with the Afghan Taliban scheduled for Monday.

“The United States welcomes any actions by the Pakistani government to promote greater cooperation, including fostering negotiations between the Taliban, the Afghan government, and other Afghans,” a U.S. embassy spokesperson in Kabul told VOA.

US negotiator

U.S. special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, has met, and will continue to meet, with all interested parties, including the Taliban, to support a negotiated settlement to the conflict in Afghanistan, the spokesperson added.

Neither Khan nor the U.S. spokesperson have disclosed the possible venue for the upcoming meeting with Taliban officials.

Some Afghan sources say Monday’s meeting will take place in Islamabad, but no official confirmation is available.

USA, afghanistan
U.S. special envoy for peace in Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, talks with local reporters at the U.S. embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, Nov. 18, 2018. VOA

Khalilzad, who is visiting regional countries to gather support for Afghan peace talks, is to lead the U.S. delegation in talks with insurgent representatives. This will not be the first time Khalilzad has met with the Taliban.

Since taking office in September, the special U.S. envoy has held two publicly known rounds of preliminary discussions with insurgent negotiators in Qatar, where the Taliban runs its so-called political office. The talks have been for the sake of talks, according to insurgent and other sources aware of the meetings.

Trump’s letter to Khan

U.S. President Donald Trump earlier this month wrote a formal letter to Khan asking for his help to bring the Taliban to the table for negotiations. A day later, Khalilzad visited Islamabad where he met with Khan and his military chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, to follow-up on Trump’s request, Pakistani officials say.

Speaking in northwestern city of Peshawar on Friday, Khan said the U.S. has changed its tune by requesting help instead of saying Islamabad is not doing enough, as U.S. officials have previously insisted.

“By the grace of Allah, the dialogue is now happening inshallah [God willing] on the 17th [Khan did not mention the month] and Pakistan has facilitated the talks between America and the Taliban,” Khan said. He did not share further details.

taliban, afghanistan
Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanakzai, right, head of the Taliban’s political council in Qatar, takes part in the multilateral peace talks on Afghanistan in Moscow, Nov. 9, 2018. VOA

Khan recounted Friday that critics used to mock him as “Taliban Khan” for saying the Afghan war could not be ended without political negotiations but now all key stakeholders are jointly working to pursue a political settlement to end the violence in Afghanistan.

“If peace were achieved, God willing, Peshawar will change and become a hub of commerce and tourism, as things around the 2,500 years old living city are likely to change,” Khan said Friday.

Ambassador Khalilzad is 13 days into an 18-day visit to the region. He has traveled to Pakistan, Afghanistan, Russia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Belgium and plans to visit the U.A.E. and Qatar.

Withdrawal an issue

Pakistani officials privy to the U.S. interaction with the Taliban have told VOA that until now no progress has been achieved because the insurgents adamantly demand “a date or timeframe” for all foreign troops to withdraw from Afghanistan before the Taliban decides to participate in an intra-Afghan peace process.

Also Read: What to Make of Taliban’s Continued Rare Silence on Ghani’s Peace Offer? 

U.S. officials have long maintained Taliban leaders are sheltering in Pakistan with covert support from the country’s intelligence agency. Washington has been urging Islamabad to use its influence to bring the insurgents to the negotiating table.

Pakistani officials say their influence over the Taliban has significantly declined over the years because the insurgents have gained control over large areas of Afghanistan and continue to pose serious battlefield challenges for U.S.-backed Afghan security forces. (VOA)