Oneida white corn is braided by the husks before being hung to dry, which takes about 1½ months.

The state of Wisconsin is partnering with agricultural organizations to combat food insecurity among its Native American populations—a chronic, long-term issue that has gained urgency as the pandemic continues to evolve and spread.

During a virtual meeting Friday, Aug. 11, representatives of tribal communities across Wisconsin, as well as government and nonprofit functionaries, convened to discuss food shortages in Native American communities and how these partnerships are intended to alleviate the issue.

“Today is a good day and I say that with pride,” said Gunner Peters, chairman of the Menominee Nation. “These initiatives being recognized today are even more important in these times as we face urgent challenges—addressing the situation of COVID-19 and sustaining our tribes’ economic recovery, addressing the importance of food security and its impact on our local tribal issues.”

The event also highlighted the vital role that agriculture has in ensuring the long-term well-being of Native American communities.

These communities, participants noted, are consistently underserved by local governments and may have different dietary needs than their neighbors. Tribal leaders pointed to staples like white flour and powdered milk, which typically aren’t used in these communities. Participants expressed hope that this program could help to rectify these shortcomings.

“We all know, unfortunately, how COVID-19 has increased food insecurity all across the country,” said Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes. “It was already a tough situation prior to the pandemic. Our native communities are not only an exception, but have been disproportionately impacted.”

Through a partnership with the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, Feeding Wisconsin, the Intertribal Agriculture Council and others, a cooperative pilot project has been launched that provides food boxes to 900 tribal elders in July through early December.

The fresh, minimally processed food included in the boxes are purchased from indigenous and local Wisconsin producers. The program is funded through a $427,800 food distribution grant by Feeding America.

In addition, a joint-project proposal, which serves as a collaboration between the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Oneida and Menominee nations, has been awarded that grants tribal entities more control and self-determination in selecting food products to be purchased and distributed.

Seven tribal entities were awarded nationally for this pilot program and $497,800 was awarded to the Oneida and Menominee Nation for this joint project.