By Shelia Kirven
October 16 is recognized as World Food Day, an annual day of awareness and call to action sponsored by the Food and Agriculture Organizations of the United Nations. It is a time to recognize and recommit to doing our part in helping make food systems stronger and to help defeat world hunger.
Founded in 1945, World Food Day reminds us to choose fresh and healthy foods for ourselves and our families to improve health, making it an everyday lifestyle objective. By doing so, we also ensure the demand for nutritious foods helps sustain local growers. We all have a role in ensuring that our food systems thrive and are sustained for future generations.
Choctaws, being an agricultural people, have always had a relationship with the land around them. It’s part of our heritage. Producing and sustaining food systems is something the Choctaw people have always valued. Many Choctaws still grow their own food and are accomplished farmers and ranchers, some large-scale and others participate in smaller backyard opportunities.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, these practices seem to be more important than ever.
Choctaw Nation concentrates heavily on the importance of food sustainability, resiliency and protecting our resources while assisting our members. Food Distribution, WIC, Senior Nutrition and Senior Farmers Market are examples of programs available for eligible members.
There are also grassroots efforts to teach food sustainability, such as the backyard demonstration centers located in Lehigh and Hugo, Oklahoma.
Donna Loper, Executive Director of the Land Title and Natural Resources Division, said, “We have some great projects going on to assist tribal members. At Lehigh, they have several gardening demonstrations. They have begun a backyard initiative to teach projects including chicken tractors, making your own potting soil mixture, water catchment and raised bed gardening.”
The program is in its third year of growing in Lehigh and the first year in Hugo. So far, the program has produced almost 10,000 pounds of fresh vegetables that were donated to Choctaw senior citizens. Program staff work with OSU extension centers to determine the varieties of vegetables to grow in the area and coordinate with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to sponsor workshops ranging from subjects such as beekeeping to canning your own food. Areas of expertise also include soil health, vegetable gardening, utilizing hoop houses, aquaponics, and pollinator food habitats.
Emmlie Bragg, the program’s agronomist, stated that “in a normal year we put on classes/workshops throughout the year for hands-on learning, but with this year being a bit different, we are trying to go with virtual learning. At each demonstration center, we have a variety of gardens and community gardens. We have started a backyard initiative where we hope to demonstrate what can be done in your own personal backyard.”
Jeffrey Roebuck, a project technician, said, “You see how important it is to get back to our roots, to be as self-sufficient as possible, and what I mean by that, is to grow your own food and to be able to preserve your own food. Many young and older people have never gardened. With this pandemic, a lot of people have jumped into gardening. What we teach is that there are many different types of ways to garden.
We show that you don’t need five acres to grow a garden. You don’t need a tractor or equipment. There are several ways it can be done.” He went on to say, “Gardening has a lot of benefits. The vegetables you produce are fresh with no chemicals that the store-bought vegetables have. It gives you an activity to exercise and a way to ease your mind off things.”
Staff members say they enjoy helping their participants learn to be backyard gardeners and encourage others to know that there is no spot too small to enjoy gardening and that anyone who is interested can learn.
“The Land Management Program is committed to the conservation management and preservation of the natural resources of the Choctaw Nation. Land Management goals and responsibilities are to protect, enhance and preserve all tribal trust/fee and individually owned lands and to use the tools of research, demonstration, protection, and provide outreach programs to assist in these goals for the enhancement and productivity of these resources,” said Bragg. “The COVID-19 global health crisis has been a time to reflect on things we truly cherish and our most basic needs. These uncertain times have made many of us rekindle our appreciation for a thing that some take for granted and many go without – food. Food is the essence of life and the bedrock of our cultures and communities. Preserving access to safe and nutritious food is and will continue to be an essential part of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly for poor and vulnerable communities, who are hit hardest by the pandemic and resulting economic shocks. In a moment like this, it is more important than ever to recognize the need to support our food heroes- farmers and workers throughout the food system- who are making sure that food makes its way from farm to fork even amid disruptions as unprecedented as the current COVID-19 crisis.”
To talk with staff about the backyard demonstration centers, or any questions about home food projects, call 580-326-3201 ext. 6018 or 4276, or 580-380-3450. For more information about World Food Day, visit www.fao.org/world-food-day/ho.