By Cecily Walters 2013-10-02 04:58:25
The limited sovereignty of American Indian reservations can make for various administrative, political and legal complications. Does this hold true when it comes to school meals? An American Indian reservation is an area of land managed by a Native American tribe under the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs. In these territories, tribal councils are able to make and enforce many of their own laws and regulations. While having some independence from certain state rules, they are not exempted from most federal laws. Although the United States is home to some 330 reservations, not all of the country’s more than 550 recognized tribes have their own reservations; some tribes may have more than one reservation, while others share land or have none at all. Reservations can be found throughout the United States, with the majority located west of the Mississippi River. In 2012, of the more than 2.5 million Native Americans living in this country, about 1 million of them were on reservations. The federal child nutrition programs can play a significant role for children living on reservations, as the poverty rate in these communities tends to be very high: 28% in 2010, compared with 15% among all Americans. Conditions such as low education levels, poor healthcare services and high unemployment frequently hinder the opportunities for those who live on reservations. Given the blurring of jurisdictional lines for administration and government, the great need for nutrition assistance programs and the tribal leadership’s desire to preserve cultural traditions and practices, are there special challenges related to operating a K-12 school meals program in these communities? The short answer is not really. But let’s take a look at reflections from both operators and state agency directors on the issue. Operator Perspective Dave Tolliver, Wagner (S.D.) Community School, Yankton Sioux Reservation The Wagner (S.D.) Community School is situated on a “checkerboard” reservation, with parts of the district encompassing areas that are public-owned and other parts that are tribal-owned. Amid the 330 square miles of the district are 2,200 acres belonging to the Yankton Sioux Tribe. Students are transported all across the immense district to a single pre-K-12 school site. The school nutrition operation, boasting a newly constructed onsite kitchen, provides multiple lunch periods organized by grade level. The cafeteria team serves school breakfast and lunch to a mixed-culture enrollment consisting mainly of Native American (between 35% and 67% depending on grade level) and Caucasian students. The total free/ reduced-price eligibility is 75%. Although the school district encompasses tribal land, Dave Tolliver, who just entered his fifth year as Wagner Community School’s foodservice director, explains that there is no special impact on administration of the federal school meals programs. Born and raised in Wagner, Tolliver does boast a unique understanding of the diverse population in the community, but arguably the more critical advantages he brings to the job are culinary arts training and experience in the restaurant and catering business. The Wagner operation occasionally serves cultural meals, primarily during its celebration of Native American Week in October and at an annual end-of-the-year Feather Ceremony, which features such menu items as hominy (hulled and dried kernels of corn that have been boiled). Tolliver acknowledges that it can be challenging to prepare cultural menus that meet meal pattern regulations, citing as examples fry bread (a popular item he no longer serves since eliminating deep-fat fryers) and buffalo (the high cost of which makes it difficult to serve with any regularity). He notes that many of Wagner’s students frequently partake in cultural meals outside of school, particularly at the pow-wows that they attend, but there is less expectation by the children (and their parents) for such items on the school menu. Instead, menus are similar to the diverse range seen in districts all across the country, featuring everything from Swedish Meatballs to Turkey Quesadilla to Shrimp Poppers to Hamburger Stew. State Agency Perspective Colleen Fillmore, PhD, RD, LD, SNS, Idaho Department of Education Most state agency directors likely would affirm that there are no significant differences between administering a child nutrition operation in a public school district and one on an American Indian reservation. School meals still must meet meal pattern regulations and staff must complete the relevant paperwork, says Colleen Fillmore, PhD, RD, LD, SNS, state director for child nutrition programs at the Idaho Department of Education. The school nutrition staff working at Idaho’s three reservation programs are “great and dedicated,” she credits, and in many cases have been in their positions for a number of years. The grade levels of the students receiving schooling on Idaho’s tribal reservations—Coeur d’Alene, Fort Hall and Nez Perce—vary, with some schools established for elementary students only and others designed for K-12 students. “Our state agency encourages the school nutrition programs on the reservations to serve cultural foods to students and to apply for the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program,” Fillmore details. She notes that these sites do not typically have a la carte options, as there’s not much discretionary cash among students. Indeed, poverty is a significant factor on Indian reservations. Fillmore estimates the free/reduced-price rate at each of the reservations at around 89%; Idaho’s average free/reduced rate is in the mid-30% range. Her team encourages the local education authorities serving the tribal communities to pursue the Community Eligibility Option (CEO), which has been introduced in select states following the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010. CEO reimburses those schools where 40% or more of the student population is found automatically eligible for free school meals without a paper application. (Beginning in SY 2014-15, all schools nationwide that meet the 40% student threshold will be able to participate in CEO.) Operator Perspective Debra Candelaria, Zuni (N.M.) Public School District, Zuni Tribe Pueblo As foodservice director for Zuni (N.M.) Public School District, Debra Candelaria gets menu ideas from the same sources as her peers across the country: the students. And like her counterparts on public lands, she is challenged by “picking the right menu choices that will meet the meal pattern but also be something students like.” Zuni Pueblo is one of the most remote traditional pueblos and the largest of the 19 pueblos in the state. Removed geographically from most job opportunities, it is one of the poorest communities in New Mexico, with an unemployment rate greater than 60%. The bilingual Zuni Public School District (ZPSD) was established in 1980 especially to “return to the Zuni people the ability to preserve their heritage and culture.” The district is home to an estimated 1,200 students, making use of four onsite cafeterias for its five schools. The operation serves breakfast after the bell at elementary sites, while secondary students receive breakfast in the cafeteria. Each school has a free/reduced rate ranging from 84% to 97%, making the district eligible for Provision 2 status. As part of ZPSD’s Indian Day promotion, Zuni students look forward to a menu featuring posole stew, whole-wheat crackers, whole-wheat tortillas, garden salad, carrots, watermelon and milk. Typical entrées on the district’s cycle menu include Baked Chicken, Beef Red Chili Enchiladas and Meat Lasagna. State Agency Perspective Jo Dawson, Alaska Department of Education & Early Development Alaska has just one Native American reservation, home to the Annette Island School District in Metlakatla, in the far southeastern part of the state. In addition, Alaska has many smaller school districts in predominately indigenous “Alaska Native” communities. Many of these local school districts serve food familiar to Alaskan Natives, including salmon, pollock, halibut, cod and crab, which are healthy entrée choices—and ones the children are used to eating at home, explains Jo Dawson, child nutrition programs administrator at the Alaska Department of Education & Early Development. “Some school nutrition programs receive donated foods from [Alaska Native] communities, such as moose, caribou and reindeer, [and these] are incorporated into school lunches,” she notes. Dawson’s department also receives school meal requests to permit other traditional foods, like sea mammals and fermented foods, she says. But these cannot be served in schools, either because they are not allowed by the state or simply are unavailable due to processing limitations or small quantities. But if the Traditional Foods Nourishment Act of 2013 is passed, serving Alaska Native foods in schools, childcare centers and hospitals would become easier. The bill (S. 1374), introduced by Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), grants USDA the authority “to approve traditional foods that are allowable for donation, preparation and consumption in public facilities, as long as certain safety requirements are met.” The Tribe Has Spoken School nutrition operators serving meals on Native American reservations largely share the same responsibilities and concerns as their peers in public districts. They want to ensure that meal pattern requirements are met, complete the paperwork necessary to keep the program running and prepare tasty meals—which, given the high rates of poverty in tribal communities, may be the only daily meals for many of their students. BONUS Web Content Casinos and the dynamics related to their operation may not have an obvious tie-in with school meals, but the profits are used on a number of American Indian reservations to fund other reservation-related educational initiatives. Don’t miss online-exclusive content on this topic, as well as an overall look at casinos as a potential solution to reduce poverty on reservations, at www.schoolnutrition.org/snmagazinebonuscontent. Cecily Walters is School Nutrition’s managing editor. Photography by jiunlimited.com.
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