As inflation rises, access to local food decreases


Jessica Pamonicutt, executive chef at a Chicago Native American catering business, displays the contemporary indigenous food she has cooked for elders August 3, 2022 at the American Indian Center of Chicago. (Claire Savage/Report for America via AP)


Blueberry Bison Tamales, Harvest Salad with Mixed Leafy Greens, Creamy Carrot and Wild Rice Soup, Roasted Turkey with Squash. This modern Native American dish, made from the traditional foods of tribes across the United States and made with “ketapans” — a term of Menominee love — cost caterer Jessica Pamonicutt $976 last November to a to feed a group of 50 people.

Today it costs them almost twice as much.

Pamonicutt is the executive chef at Chicago-based Indian catering company Ketapanen Kitchen. She is a citizen of the Menominee Indian tribe of Wisconsin but grew up in the Windy City, home to one of the largest urban Native American populations in the country, according to the American Indian Center of Chicago.

Her company aims to provide the Chicago Native American community with health-conscious meals using Indigenous ingredients and to educate people about the contributions of Native Americans to everyday American cuisine.

One day she wants to buy all ingredients from indigenous suppliers and give her community affordable access to healthy indigenous food, “but this whole inflation thing has slowed that down,” she said.

US inflation soared to a new four-decade high in June, squeezing household budgets with soaring gas, food and rent prices.

Traditional Indigenous foods — like wild rice, bison, fresh Midwestern vegetables and fruits — are often unavailable or too expensive for Native families in urban areas like Chicago, and the recent surge in inflation has pushed those foods even further out of reach.

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“There are many benefits to eating traditional Native foods,” said Jessica Thurin, a nutritionist at the Native American Community Clinic in Minneapolis. “The body knows exactly how to process and use this food. These foods are natural to the earth.”

But many of the people the clinic serves are on low incomes and don’t have a choice about where their food comes from. Food deserts—areas with limited access to a variety of healthy and affordable foods—are more likely to occur in places with higher poverty rates and minority concentrations.

“In these situations, there are limited choices for healthy eating, let alone limited choices for traditional foods,” Thurin said.

Aside from the health benefits, traditional foods have important cultural and emotional value.

“It’s just a consolation,” said Danielle Lucas, a 39-year-old descendant of the Sicangu Lakota of the Rosebud Sioux tribe of South Dakota.

Lucas’ mother, Evelyn Red Lodge, said she hasn’t prepared traditional Great Plains dishes like wojapi berry sauce or stew since May because the prices of key ingredients — berries and meat — have skyrocketed.

Pamonicutt feels the pinch too. Between last winter and this spring, bison prices rose from $13.99 to $23.99 a pound.

Shipping costs are so high that the chef said it’s often cheaper to drive hundreds of miles to buy ingredients, even with rising gas prices. She even had to set up her own suppliers: The 45-year-old’s parents now grow crops for her business on their property in Wisconsin, near the Illinois border.

Gina Roxas, program coordinator at the Trickster Cultural Center in Schaumburg, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, has also agreed to grow local foods to help the chef minimize costs.

When a bag of wild rice is $20, “you end up going to a fast food restaurant to feed your family,” Roxas said.

More than 70% of Native Americans live in urban areas – the result of decades of federal policy urging families to leave reservations and integrate into American society.

Dorene Wiese, executive director of the Chicago-based American Indian Association of Illinois, said members of her community need to prioritize paying rent rather than overindulging in healthy, traditional foods.

Although specialty chefs like Pamonicutt aim to feed their own communities, the cost of their premium catering service is out of range for many urban natives. Their meals feed the majority of non-Native audiences at museums or cultural events who can foot the bill, said Wiese, a resident of the Minnesota White Earth Band of Ojibwe Indians.

“There’s really a shortage of local food in the area,” she said, but the problem isn’t unique to Chicago.

Dana Thompson, co-owner of The Sioux Chef and executive director of an Indigenous food nonprofit in Minneapolis, is another local businesswoman struggling to improve her community’s access to traditional local foods like saltwater fish, wild rice and wild vegetables amid rising food prices extend .

Thompson of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate and Mdewakanton Dakota people said inflation is having “a real impact on the food systems that we have here,” which include dozens of Indigenous, local and organic food producers.

At Owamni, an award-winning Indigenous restaurant owned by The Sioux Chef, ingredients like Labrador tea, which grows wild in northern Minnesota, have been particularly hard to come by this year, Thompson said.

If an ingredient isn’t always available or affordable, they change the menu.

“We’re used to being fluid and resilient,” Thompson said. “It’s like Native American history in North America.”

Inflation is similarly hampering the American Indian Center of Chicago’s efforts to improve food security. Executive Director Melodi Serna of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians and the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin said the current prices for food boxes they distribute — containing traditional Midwestern foods like fish, bison, venison, dairy and other produce — are “astronomical”. ”

“Where I could have provided maybe 100 boxes, we can now only provide 50,” Serna said.

For 57-year-old Emmie King, who lives in Chicago and is a citizen of the Navajo Nation, getting the fresh ingredients she grew up with in New Mexico is much harder in the city, mostly because inflation has left her Budget affected.

Finding ways to “stretch” the foods she buys so they last longer, she buys meat in bulk and freezes small portions to later add to stews. “I get what I need instead of what I want,” she said.

But King was able to enjoy a taste of home at an Aug. 3 luncheon at the American Indian Center of Chicago, where twenty elders gathered to share turkey tamales with cranberry-infused masa, Spanish rice with quinoa, Elote pasta salad with chickpea noodles, and to enjoy glasses of cold lemonade.

The mastermind behind the food was Pamonicutt herself, who shared her take on Southwestern and Northern indigenous food traditions. Through volunteering at senior meals and developing a nutrition program, the chef continues to improve access to healthy, local foods in her community.

“I want kids to learn where this food comes from,” the chef said. “This whole act of caring for your food… thanking it, understanding it was grown to help us survive.”


Claire Savage, Hannah Schoenbaum, and Trisha Ahmed are corps members of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to cover undercover topics. Savage reported from Chicago, Illinois, Schoenbaum from Raleigh, North Carolina, and Ahmed from Minneapolis, Minnesota.

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