Farmers market counters White Earth ‘food desert’

Published 9:58 am Friday, August 23, 2013

MAHNOMEN — A farmers market on the White Earth Indian Reservation in northwestern Minnesota is seeking to be an oasis in a “food desert.”

The Ojibwe reservation has only two or three grocery stores on its more than 1,000 square miles. Its more common convenience stores are stocked mostly with processed foods, often high in salt, fat and sugar. And that’s a recipe for diabetes, which afflicts 30 percent of the reservation’s residents according to the tribe’s figures.

But every Thursday during the summer, growers and canners gather in Mahnomen to sell fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as items like low- or no-sugar jellies. It was established four years ago by the tribe’s diabetes project to provide access to healthy food.

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“I come here when I have the money,” said Thelma Coleman, who lives 21 miles away in the village of Naytahwaush. “It’s the best place for fresh stuff.”

Coleman, who bought fresh corn and tomatoes last week, said her mother always had a garden when she was growing up, and processed foods were much less common than they are today.

“That was the only way we could get the vegetables we needed,” the 77-year-old great-great-grandmother said.

Now, living in an elderly housing complex, she isn’t able to garden. And, living on a fixed income with no car for mobility, it’s difficult for her to find and purchase healthy foods. That makes controlling her diabetes difficult.

Leslie Scott, who also lives in Naytahwaush, said food prices are high at stores on the reservation. She said hamburger can cost $5 a pound.

“It adds up,” said Scott, who does much of her shopping at a dollar store in Fargo, 70 miles southwest of Mahnomen, where she spends $80 at a time in the frozen foods section. Shopping locally, she added, would mean paying “at least two or three times higher than that.”

As for restaurants, “Basically it’s a grill and a deep fryer,” said LaRaye Anderson, the tribe’s health education program manager. “Not many healthy options.”

The market is one of several programs aimed at combating the epidemic of obesity and diabetes on the reservation, which has a population of about 10,000. The tribe’s diabetes project also is promoting family and community gardens.

“Gardens provide so much more than fruits and vegetables,” Anderson said. “Family time, fresh air, exercise — they’re just good in many ways.”