American Indian diets and food practices have probably changed more than any other ethnic group in the United States — and not for the better.
Amazingly, it has only been a few generations since many Native people moved away from the "old way" of life. Some American Indian tribes were gatherers, eating the fruits and vegetables native to their regions. Many tribes hunted wild game, and others practiced traditional agriculture. They used farming methods that let them grow crops on the same soil for many years. Navajo meticulously cared for herds of sheep, the Zuni tended gardens and Hopi were dry farmers. Traditional crops included healthy foods like corn, root plants, beans and squash. But as traditional ways of life were disrupted and American Indians began consuming more processed store-bought foods, their health suffered, and today, American Indian communities suffer from high rates of diabetes, heart disease and other ailments.
There was a time when the traditional diet of American Indians protected them from the very illnesses that plague so many American Indians today. A study published in the Journal of Nutrition in 1997 showed that the use of ash in cooking (cedar or juniper) provided participants with a traditional source of calcium, and provided higher intakes of bone-related minerals which translated to less osteoporosis. Mutton (the meat from fully grown sheep) is a great source of protein, niacin, Vitamin B and iron. Niacin boosts the level of good cholesterol in the blood.
Today, however, more than half of the U.S. federally recognized tribes (residing in 22 states) depend on food from the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR). The foodstuffs originally distributed through this program, called "commodities," included items like butter, peanut butter, shortening, macaroni, artificial cheese and canned meat: far removed from traditional Native diets. While the intention of this program was positive, the resulting effects on nutritional status were decidedly not.
Our food distribution service has greatly benefitted from the generosity of our donors who recognize the need to provide healthy food for food insecure areas and improve overall health. In 2009, the SWIRC Program provided over 665,000 pounds of fresh and frozen produce — 332 tons of nutritious foods — to 18 Program Partners on five reservations covering two states. Our mission is to provide American Indian people with the opportunity to bring about positive change and improve health in their communities; with the help of caring individuals, such changes are happening over time.