DOI News

Wellness in Native America: Traditional Foods


 Let's Move! in Indian Country is excited to share some of the recent blog posts from the "Wellness in Native America" project at the American Indian Institute. Check out some great information on the organization and the project at the end of the blog!


Food is nourishment. Food is culture. Food is important.

A movement is emerging in Native America. A revival of sorts, and it’s deeply rooted in our food system. If you are in search of a trendy diet or carefully-portioned 200 calorie meal packaged neatly in cellophane and cardboard, you won’t find it here.

This is a revival of traditional foods, the foods our ancestors cultivated, gathered, hunted, and preserved. A revival of tribal gardens flourishing with the sweet smell of blue and white corn, brightly colored chiles and ripe berries, and varieties of squash you have never seen. A restoration of fishing and gathering techniques, interwoven with traditional knowledge, stories, and language; the rebirth of buffalo herds and whole foods, honoring the generations that came before us.

When it comes to the revival of traditional foods in Native American communities, the Oneida Nation is among the leaders in this movement. Join us in this issue as we interview Mr. William (Bill) Vervoort of the Onieda Community Integrated Food Systems (OCIFS), to learn more about one of the most comprehensive tribally-sustained food projects in Indian Country.

Special thanks to Bill Vervoort and Jeff Metoxen of OCIFS, the Oneida Nation, and Jeff Metoxen and Randy Cornelius for sharing traditional recipes. 

Hanging White Corn – OCIFS (Oneida Nation)

Oneida Community Integrated Food Systems

MISSION:  The Oneida Community Integrated Food Systems entities are here as a team to help families by housing a community food system that will include traditional food products and help create a local economy that will provide jobs, and promote and encourage long range solutions to farm and nutrition issues on the Oneida Reservation.


How did the Oneida Community Integrated Food System (OCIFS) get started?

Planting day at OCIFS

Our first step was getting community data on health issues on this reservation, diabetes rates and related health data on issues involving health in our community. If you have a health center, they are required to keep data on health in the community. However, getting data back out of the system can be tricky. In our case, we used diagnostic codes to track health related issues. We are also working with a local Epicenter and a report is generated every two years, roughly, on community health issues. We receive the ‘Special Diabetes Grant’ and part of the requirements involve looking at the diabetes rate in our community on a yearly basis. Once we had a picture of the community health issues, education and awareness kicked in.

We worked with a Traditional Wellness person to get a cultural perspective on food and indigenous foods for this community. We started looking at some of the health issues in our community. We also started looking at the school and issues of medication and health within our school system. A program was created to work on policy development and process improvement strategies of getting healthy food into our school system.

Entrance to the Oneida Nation Farms. The tribal herd of Black Angus Cattle and the herd of Oneida Buffalo are grass-fed with no added steroids, hormones, antibiotics, or animal byproducts.

We discovered with the average transportation of foods to our area, fresh food is in transit possibly as long as two weeks or more. In two weeks, most fruit and vegetables lose their nutritional content and are totally depleted of nutrients when it gets here. You think you are eating healthy, but food is depleted by the time it arrives here!

This got us thinking about integrating our own food products and locally grown organic farmers in our area. Why not create a local food economy for our feeding programs, which is the school, day care, child care and elderly feeding programs, because the food is created by the same source for these programs.

Tsyunhehkwa Plants

WhenOCIFS began in 1994, we did not have enough production to provide enough food for the community. As our production increases, we are looking at how to integrate our own food products back into the tribal organization. This led us to doing a Community Food Assessment in 2009. We consider this document to be a continued work in progress and plan to update it every 3 to 4 years. From this we would like to create an advisory team to change some of the tribal purchasing policies to integrate our own foods back into the organization. Our goal is to integrate 10% of food purchases from OCIFS back into the tribal organization.

Oneida Farm started in 1978, Food Distribution Program started in 1980, Farmers Market started in 2001, Orchard started in 1994, Tsyunhehkwa started in 1995, Falling Leaves 4-H started in 2002.

What is your favorite thing about being involved in a local food system?

The possibilities and how important they are. The Oneida Tribe was way ahead of the curve when you think of the importance of food. In the past 5 years, more and more people understand the relationship between food and our health. The projected health care costs of the U.S. in nutrition related diseases are $147 billion a year. But we are not just talking about money or even quality of life. We are talking about the security of this country. Presently, 27 percent of young adults are too overweight to qualify for military service. My favorite thing about being involved in the local food system is the importance and the difference we can make in our community.

What traditional Oneida foods can be found in the different OCIFS programs?

Youth at the OCIFS Apple Orchard

The Tsyunhehkwa program is the cultural food arm of OCIFS. They provide most of the traditional Oneida foods like the Oneida White corn, beans, squash and medicinal herbs. They also have a ‘Pick Your Own Berry’ patch.  In addition they have free range poultry, eggs, and grass fed beef. They also provide a vast array of garden produce.

The Oneida Nation Farm produce black angus beef and grass fed bison.

The Apple Orchard grows strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, squash, pumpkins and 26 varieties of apples.

The OCIFS has taken great strides to produce natural beef and buffalo (free of steroids, antibiotics, and hormones) and organically-grown produce whenever possible. How have these practices affected the sustainability of OCIFS?

To be honest, in the short term they have somewhat adversely affected the sustainability of OCIFS. This is because to farm in the natural and organic method it is much more labor intensive and thus more costly. Although our products are superior in nutritional value it is a difficult for people to understand the necessary higher costs. However, we believe that as people continue to be better educated about the food system, they will be more willing to pay a higher price for a premium/healthy product.

What advice would you offer tribes that are interested in starting their own community food system?

As anything worth doing, it does come with barriers that need to be addressed in a pro-active manner:

Stephanie, Jen, Sylvia, and Arlie sampling fresh food.

Buffalo Overlook

The OCIFS Farmers Market

4-H members in food pantry cleaning Oneida White Corn


About the Organization:

The American Indian Institute (Aii) was established in 1951 at the University of Oklahoma as a non-profit Native American service, training, and research organization. The Institute is a department within the University of Oklahoma's College of Continuing Education & University Outreach, providing assistance to American Indian, Alaska Native and Canadian First Nation tribes and bands. With more than 60 years of experience working throughout Indian Country, Aii offers assistance in the following areas: Native Health & Wellness, American Indian Common & Higher Education, Culture & Language Preservation, Tribal Leadership & Organizational Development, and Business & Economic Development.

Check out all of the Wellness in Native America blog posts here!