Native Nutrition Conference (University of Minnesota Healthy Foods, Healthy Lives Institute)

Date: June 6, 2019
Interviewer: Sarah Ballew, Headwater People
Interviewee: Mindy Kurzer, Director; Jared Walhowe, Assistant Director; Megan Forcia (The Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Tribe), Native American Programs Coordinator and a part of the Midwest Native Youth Food Alliance.

Quick Stats about the Native Nutrition Conference
Healthy Foods, Healthy Lives Institute partners with Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community to put on the Native Nutrition Conference and are currently planning the fourth one.

They have a granting programs and offer 5 grants each year. Health Foods, Healthy Lives Institute also have educational programs, and is the fiscal host of the Minnesota food charter.

Each year the conference has different themes based on the planning committee. That committee differs each year. In 2018, there were close to 600 attendees from all over the country - representing 36 states, Canada, Mexico, and New Zealand.

The conference is building momentum for a movement and a network by bringing together people doing great work already and offering a setting to talk. People can build relationships, collaborations, and present about the best of what works.

We offer conference scholarships, last year we were able to offer more than 100 scholarships. 20% of folks attending received a scholarship to attend.

The conference’s purpose is to bring together academics, research, and indigenous wisdom and knowledge.

Key Considerations:
60% of attendees self-identify as Native American. The audience is intended to be for professionals in Indian Country so they can bring back the knowledge they learn to their communities; about 1/3 of attendees are medical/nutrition practitioners. ¼ of attendees are researchers and students, and another quarter are tribal leaders and employees. There is a mixture of nonprofit leaders, investors and business leaders, who also attend.

The conference is focused on health, not food sovereignty. Although sovereignty is such core issue and runs through every talk, they don’t want to duplicate other conferences like the Oneida Nation Food Sovereignty Summit that is already doing strong work.

Strengths, Keys for Success:
An outcome of conference is that all the talks are turned into publications in academic journals. The Nutrition of Science magazine published by the American Society of Nutrition, it is an online journal on the current developments in nutrition. It is a mainstream academic journal that publishes the conference’s proceedings. There is a new section for food and indigenous issues, and the Institute brings this issue to the forefront of academics.

The opportunity with being youth focused is to build on energy and momentum around youth and food sovereignty, to help incorporate strategic plan to engage more Native students Youth and elder voices are included in the conference, and there is an acknowledge about the importance of the transfer of knowledge. There is an elder response panel to almost every presentation. The elders panel ends the conference to reflect on what they are thinking and what they heard.

The conference uses a strength-based approach, not health disparity-based. They are strength based, solution based, and use best practices.

The planning committee is a major force behind the conference. 75% of the committee is Native, ½ are academics, and ½ are non-academic professionals, including community members. The diversity of thought and creativity and input provided in the conversations on planning committee calls has been a key strength.
Scholarships are also key. The make-up of attendees would be very different without the scholarships.

Barriers and Challenges:
Finding additional funders has been a challenge. The conference costs $500,000 a year, and they need a few big funders at $50,000 or $100,000 to continue.

Also, the time required by staff to organize and manage the conference is signficant and has exceeded expectations.

Primary Funding:
Shakopee fully funds the conference. Additional support from the University of Minnesota, Blue Cross Blue Shield MN, Allina Health, Newman's Own Foundations, Minnesota Department of Human services, and other tribes’ money are allowing the conference to respond to all scholarship requests.

Insights for others:
Philanthropy, especially in Indian Country, need to be making larger investments at larger amounts of time. They need to trust communities to do the work and define it themselves. The evaluation push hurts trust, so it’s working to build that partnership and trust them to define how to use funds best. Evaluations, but the type and manner must be defined by the community, and it may not look like what funders are used to.
There needs to be a greater understanding by funders about differences within Indian Country. Not every project will be done the same with different tribes. Traditional foods differ in each place, and you can’t make one recommended menu for all of Indian Country. There is geographic diversity in what we present and talk about. Funders need to understand this, and these projects need to be done in multiple tribes.

We know there’s a lot of people working on health disparities, and a majority are non-Natives. This is a huge part of the problem. We need Native youth to go into these careers and to provide career pathways that don’t saddle them with debt. These careers serve their community but these jobs are not more economically beneficial places to work. We need to get serious about supporting native students, through scholarships, grants, and programming.