Food & Agriculture

RSF Support of Regional Food Systems Bolstered by $750,000 Investment

April 11, 2014

surdnaRSF Social Finance (RSF) is pleased to announce a new $750,000 investment in its Program Related Investing Fund (PRI) from the Surdna Foundation. With these funds, RSF will continue to expand its pioneering financing program for sustainable food businesses.

“We have seen a huge need for debt financing for social enterprises working to connect farmers to institutional buyers and Surdna’s investment enables us to increase our funding to organizations that would otherwise have trouble finding financing,” says Taryn Goodman, Director of Impact Investing at RSF. “RSF is often the first organization willing to provide debt to these organizations due to our ability to understand their unique financing needs.”

Designed for foundations eager to participate in program related investing but without in-house capacity to do so, the RSF PRI Fund offers a streamlined means of recycling program payouts through low-interest loans to fully charitable projects. This Fund enables RSF to provide equipment financing and lines of credit to organizations that don’t fully meet their traditional lending criteria.  The Fund has a minimum $100,000 investment, a five year term, and returns 1%.  The Fund lends out $50,000 to up to 10% of the total fund to any one borrower.

Launched in 2010, the PRI Fund has been a crucial vehicle in RSF’s ability to support the growth of regional, sustainable, and just food systems.  The Fund focuses on building infrastructure to support food businesses with the majority of loans going to organizations working on aggregation, distribution, and processing.  Without this more flexible vehicle, RSF would not be able to support the smaller organizations that have less of a track record, yet play a major role in this space.  Another benefit, RSF is also able to grow with the organization, with the hopes of eventually graduating these loans to their Social Enterprise Lending Program, as was the case with innovative food hub, Common Market Philadelphia.

“Surdna’s mission is to foster sustainable communities,” said Michelle Knapik, director of Surdna’s Sustainable Environments program. “To achieve this,  we are supporting efforts to move toward ‘next generation infrastructure’ by improving transit systems, making buildings more energy efficient, better managing our water systems, and building and rebuilding regional food infrastructure – the last of which aligns with RSF’s PRI Fund. We know that RSF is not just a financial partner in this work, but a deeply dedicated intellectual partner as well.”

In 2013 alone, RSF made PRI loans to four social enterprises and already has inquiries above and beyond that for 2014.  In order to support this growing demand, RSF hopes to raise another $2-5 million in the next year.

Hana Health: Connecting the Dots between Local Food and Healthy Lifestyles

March 25, 2014

From Maui’s main population center of Kahului, drive east along the island’s rugged northeastern coastline for about two hours, crossing over 40 one-lane bridges, and you’ll find the remote town of Hana. Its pristine beaches and traditional village culture make Hana one of Hawaii’s most unspoiled gems. But seclusion sometimes brings challenges: like in the mid-1990s, when Hana’s state-run medical center ran out of money and planned to shut down, leaving the community without access to healthcare.

Concerned community members and legislators met that challenge by successfully bringing Hana Health, a private healthcare provider, to the area in 1997. Since then, this non-profit has been the sole provider of family practice medicine, dental care, preventive healthcare, and urgent and emergent care for the region’s 2,200 residents. Hana Health has also grown to become much more than a healthcare center: it now models and promotes a local, sustainable food system that creates jobs, builds community, and prevents illness.


“Hana Health was born out of pure necessity,” notes Hana Health Executive Director Cheryl Vasconcellos, who joined the organization after 13 years with Planned Parenthood Hawaii. “I thought the small community would allow me to be creative and have a big impact on the local economy and community health,” she says.

That has proved to be true. Over the years, the organization has grown to play an even deeper role in the community than its original mission envisioned. Hana Health took on the challenge of improving people’s lives by educating them about the link between good health and eating right—and providing accessible options.


Vasconcellos realized early on, when funding sources reneged on their commitments, that Hana Health needed a reliable revenue source. “I didn’t want to live and die by the grant,” she says. “We needed to look at our own resources; we needed to be entrepreneurial.”

FILE PHOTOS 1-09 104

The answer: Hana Fresh Farms, which Vasconcellos and the Hana Health board conceived as a way to both serve the mission and earn income. The farm began in 2005 with a one-acre vegetable garden behind Hana Health’s clinic. Today, the venture encompasses a nine-acre organic farm growing more than 100 varieties of organic fruits and vegetables, and a farmer’s market that sells the produce and healthy prepared meals. In addition, Hana Health integrates diet and health education with after-school wellness and physical fitness classes as well as incentive programs such as farmer’s market discount days and farmer’s market gift certificates for patients after preventive health screenings.

When the farm began generating a surplus, Vasconcellos researched potential buyers for organic produce and found a huge demand. They now sell produce to Whole Foods Market, Mana Foods (Hawaii’s largest independent natural food store), local restaurants, and smaller establishments.

Hana Fresh Mixed Cherry  TomatoesPart of the Hana Health vision was to create a Hana Fresh Nutrition Center, which would enable Hana Fresh to sell prepared meals and “value added” products, such as jams and salad dressings, at the farmer’s market. “As demand for prepared meals at the farmer’s market increased, it became glaringly apparent that our 100-square-foot kitchen and outdoor tent were inadequate,” Vasconcellos says.

Hana Health secured funding for the building, site work, and equipment from government grants, but they weren’t enough to complete the project. Enter RSF Social Finance. Ted Levinson, RSF’s director of lending, was on vacation in Hawaii when he came across Hana Fresh products at Whole Foods. After learning about Hana Health’s model and mission, Levinson called Vasconcellos to inquire about their funding needs.

“RSF contacted us exactly when we needed them,” she says. “We had begun construction to avoid losing some of our grants, but didn’t have enough to finish. Financing from the state didn’t come through as expected and local banks wouldn’t provide us with a loan. I don’t know where we would be if RSF hadn’t come to the rescue.”


TAnnual Report 2006-2007he 1300-square-foot Hana Fresh Nutrition Center opened its doors in August 2012. The fully equipped commercial kitchen has allowed the organization to double the number of prepared meals it produces to 54,000 annually. Farm revenue grew by 150 percent from 2009 to 2012. Hana Health now has 40 employees, up from 29 in early 2012.

Hana Fresh Farms and Hana Fresh Nutrition Center are cornerstones of Hana Health’s approach to preventive healthcare and an integral part of the Hana community. Collectively, they promote healthy lifestyle choices, empower individuals to take responsibility for their own well-being, provide employment and training opportunities for residents, increase food security, and contribute to Hana’s overall economic vitality.

Next up: Hana Health is developing a prepared meal program for patients with diabetes and other chronic health conditions that can be improved with dietary changes.

“Given our remote location, we didn’t have organizations we could model ourselves after,” Vasconcellos says. “We had to be innovative and creative. We’d love to serve as a model for other healthcare providers who want to serve their communities by promoting healthy lifestyles and a healthy economy.”


Company Name: Hana Health
HQ: Hana, Maui, Hawaii
Impact area: Food & Agriculture
RSF relationship: Social Enterprise Lending Program
Community served: Hana
Employees: 40  
Revenue/budget: $3.2M

Seed Fund Grantee Highlight: Sustainable Economies Law Center

February 25, 2014

by Alex Haber

Building the next economy will take work in many sectors. RSF focuses on work with investors, donors, and entrepreneurs to build the direct, transparent relationships necessary to make economic renewal a reality. But as all these groups move their money and conduct their business with deep values, ossified legal structures will have to adapt and become more flexible to meet the needs of new economic relationships.

Sustainable Economies Law Center 1RSF Seed Fund grantee, Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC), works precisely at this intersection. SELC provides essential legal tools – education, research, advice, and advocacy – to support a transition to local, resilient economies. It focuses in many areas, including cooperatives, community-owned enterprises, co-housing, urban agriculture, barter, and local currencies.

Last year, SELC received a grant from the Seed Fund to support a new project that helps farmers interested in sustaining and growing their businesses through community-based or crowd-sourced financing methods. These methods allow local, small-scale investors to become financial stakeholders in an enterprise, and allow enterprises to seek capital from friends, family, and community members instead of high net-worth individuals or banks. With RSF’s funding, SELC was able to run an outreach campaign and application process for this new service to assess interest among farmers, and the response was very strong.

South Central Farmers 1One of the most promising candidates was the South Central Farmers’ Cooperative (SCF), a worker-owned farm in California’s Central Valley. The coop grew around South Central Farm, a former fourteen-acre urban farm in South Central Los Angeles. After ten years of cultivating the land and building the community around it, the farmers were evicted in 2004 when the plot was slated for development. This eviction led to significant protests and civil disobedience, as well as an Academy Award nominated documentary, The Garden.

Since then, the South Central Farmers have been cultivating land in the Central Valley, and are currently looking to expand and help start other worker-owned farms. In order to do this, and to avoid the threat of eviction, SCF is looking to form a non-profit organization that could purchase land it could lease to worker-owned agricultural cooperatives, and to finance these land purchases through a public offering, so small investors, potentially from all over the state, could invest in these farms.

South Central Farmers 3

SELC and SCF hope to continue working together on this project as it evolves, and SELC is looking for funding to continue the work and develop a how-to guide for other farms interested in community-based and crowd-sourced funding.

Click here to learn more about how you can get involved with the Seed Fund to support great organizations like Sustainable Economies Law Center.

Alex Haber is Program Manager of Philanthropic Services

Cultivating a Local Food System for Kansas City

January 17, 2014

by Meredith Storton

Kansas City, Kansas, like many urban areas in the United States, has its share of food deserts – low-income neighborhoods devoid of fresh, healthy foods; it also has its share of vacant land. Cultivate Kansas City, a local non-profit, is changing the landscape and engaging the entire community with a healthy, environmentally-sustainable venture: urban farming.

Founded in 2005, Cultivate Kansas City promotes urban farming as a way to build a healthy local food system. Along the way they have become advocates, educators, and activists supporting the production of organic, nutritious produce on the ground and in the policy space. One population that Cultivate is introducing to urban farming is the Kansas City refugee community. Responding to a demand for more community garden space for low-income refugee families, Cultivate partnered with Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas and three refugee organizations to begin the Juniper Gardens Training Farm and the New Roots for Refugees program. Since the program began in 2010, two gardens have been established: the Bhutanese Community Garden and the Somali Bantu Foundation garden. A third will be established in 2014.

cornFor each of these gardens, Cultivate provides the gardeners with training, basic seeds, and supplies. The gardeners receive their training at the Juniper Gardens Training Farm, an eight-acre plot of land adjacent to a public housing site where many of the refugee families live, making the location both accessible and convenient. Once these gardens are fully developed, they will help up to 600 individuals living in poverty grow food for themselves and for sale at farmer’s markets. Further, these gardens allow refugees from Bhutan, Somalia, Burma, and elsewhere to grow vegetables from their home countries, like blue Burmese pumpkins, African corn, bitter melon, Hmong red cucumber, and more.

RSF was able to provide Cultivate Kansas City with a $3,000 grant through the Seed Fund to support their work establishing the second of these gardens for the Somali Bantu community. The Somali Bantu live in northeastern Kansas City where one grocery store serves a six-mile radius and one-third of the families earn less than $10,000 annually (ISED Solutions, Apr. 2010). In Somalia, the main occupation for Bantu people is farming, so urban farming seems to be an ideal way to help them assimilate into their new home while providing them with access to fresh, healthy produce.

The nearly one-acre plot of land that will be used for this garden was donated by the Somali Bantu Foundation of Kansas, an organization dedicated to the resettlement and integration of Somali Bantu refugees. Upon first glance, the land did not appear ideal for farming; it was heavily sloped and filled with weeds and construction debris. Urban farmers make do with what’s available, though, and Cultivate Kansas City and Somali Bantu Foundation volunteers cleared the land, formed terraces, composted the soil, and planted cover crops. As a result of their efforts, a little over a half-acre is now ready for planting.

Juniper Gardens Training Farm

Juniper Gardens Training Farm

Before the growing season begins, Cultivate Kansas City will help install two cisterns for the garden which will help them plan for water costs ahead of time (instead of connecting to the city water system directly). The plan is to plant the first vegetables in the spring, and the first harvest will be ready for enjoyment and sale at local farmers markets in the summer. To get their new gardeners ready, Cultivate Kansas City will offer workshops covering basic gardening, soil management, and planting for the region and season. They will also work with the gardeners to order seeds and supplies. The garden’s benefits will reach beyond the gardeners to their neighbors and families who will have access to fresh, healthy, culturally-appropriate, and affordable produce.

Cultivate Kansas City is doing some ground-breaking work –they’ve helped start more than 40 farms and have provided thousands of hours of technical assistance to hundreds each year. But there’s still more to be done. As their Executive Director Katherine Kelly said, “there is food to be grown and money to be made and empty lots to be turned into assets rather than blight!” Cultivate Kansas City wants to grow a movement of people who know that they can reclaim the food system and their communities, and who know there is joy and power in the process. It seems they are off to a great start.

We’re now accepting applications for 2014 Seed Fund grantees! Learn more here

Meredith Storton is Client Development Associate at RSF Social Finance

New RSF Video: Relationship Matters

January 9, 2014

RSF is transforming the way the world works with money by building relationships within our financial transactions. Our quarterly pricing meetings are a great example of what that process can look like. Each calendar quarter, RSF resets the interest rates for investors and borrowers in the Social Investment Fund community. In keeping with our values of interdependence, trust, and community, we invite our investors and borrowers to take part in a facilitated discussion with RSF staff to help determine what rates will best meet the needs of all stakeholders.

Watch this video, from our September 2013 pricing meeting held in Philadelphia. Learn why relationship matters for borrower – Common Market Philadelphia, and investor – Irma Jennings.

Seed Fund Grantee Highlight: Calypso Farm & Ecology Center

December 5, 2013

CuteSheepby Ellie Lanphier

Congratulations to 2013 Seed Fund grantee Calypso Farm and Ecology Center on a successful first Farmer Training Program!

Seven participants spent May through September at the non-profit, educational farm in Ester, Alaska. They came from all over the globe to experience a full-farm, immersive training, that included field work, business planning, mapping, mechanics, animal husbandry, and fiber arts. Support from the RSF Seed Fund helped to offset living costs for the program’s aspiring young farmers.

You can meet the 2013 Farmer Training Program Participants here. Explore the blog further to get an idea of their experience at Calypso Farm and to learn more about how to apply for the 2014 Farmer Training Program. Best of luck to all the young farmers!


Small Grain, Big Change

November 19, 2013

This essay was originally published in the Fall 2013 RSF Quarterly

by Jillian McCoy

In 1993, Caryl Levine and Ken Lee decided they wanted to start a business together. They took a market research trip to China and while visiting rural farmers, they found their calling. Caryl and Ken were introduced to the culture of rice and some of the issues connected to it: an astounding loss of rice biodiversity, the plight of farmers at the base of the pyramid, and unsustainable agriculture practices. “The most unique rice widely available in US supermarkets at that time was Basmati. It was shocking to learn that thousands of varieties were going extinct because there was no market,” says Levine. “When we started to think about the larger economic and environmental impacts, we knew we had a great opportunity in front of us.”

These economic and environmental impacts are of no small measure. Nearly half the world’s population relies on rice as its dietary staple and about 75% of that supply is generated by small-scale, irrigated production—simply put, small farmers. This type of production consumes up to one-third of the Earth’s annual freshwater supply, depletes soils, and after cattle, is the second leading cause of man-made methane production (a major contributor to climate change).

Two years after that trip, Levine and Lee co-founded Lotus Foods, Inc. with a mission to support sustainable global agriculture by promoting production of traditional heirloom rice varieties, some of which may otherwise have become extinct, while enabling small family rice farmers to earn an honorable living. Lotus Foods works with in-country partners to source rice from Bhutan, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Thailand, Italy, and Madagascar, and distributes it in natural food and specialty grocery stores in the US and Canada.

When Lotus Foods was founded, distributing fair-trade heirloom rice varieties from farmers in developing countries to North American consumers was new ground. “We were totally winging it,” says Levine. “We had to take a crash-course on rice, farming, and the whole industry.”

In addition, Levine and Lee faced a challenging supply chain. On one side, they were working with farmers to improve quality assurance (for US markets), and helping to educate them on the long-term impacts of sustainable practices versus the short-term economic rewards touted by conventional distributors. On the other side—distributors, retailers, and consumers—needed education on the value of diverse rice varieties and fair-trade pricing. But their passion for their mission was always there, and, slowly but surely, the company gained traction.

Group shot

Ken and Caryl with farmers from the Ramnagar Project in the Himalayan State of Uttarakhand, who are growing traditional basmati rice organically using System of Intensification methods

In 2005, Lotus Foods developed a game-changing partnership. They were contacted by staff at Cornell University who were involved in promoting research and awareness about a sustainable rice-growing methodology called System of Rice Intensification (SRI). The SRI methodology uses significantly less water than the conventional flooding methods used to grow rice, and results in higher yields and the need for fewer inputs (seed, synthetic fertilizer and pesticide, and often labor). Furthermore, whereas the water-logged soil of conventional rice paddies is ideal for methane production, SRI fields with drier soils and healthier plants are not.

SRI improves global food security, empowers poor households, conserves water resources, and promotes human and environmental health. Today, SRI is enabling some of the world’s most marginalized farmers to double their yields (or more) using 50% less water, 80-90% less seed, and no agrochemicals. Over 2.5 million farmers in 50 countries have recorded successful adoption.

Despite this success, SRI has experienced some resistance. “True of any great development, it always meets initial skepticism,” says Lee. “This approach is the exact opposite of input-driven agribusiness. It’s very farmer friendly and you don’t have to buy any inputs like seeds or fertilizers.”

As for resistance from the scientific community, “Farmers know best how to make this work on their land. It’s a methodology not a technology,” says Lee. “Researchers are challenging this because they can’t replicate it in their labs. As long as farmers are seeing it work in their fields, I don’t really care what the dissenters are saying.  And consumers and the food industry have been very supportive of our efforts to create market incentives for SRI farmers.”

Lotus Foods now helps their current farmers transition to SRI growing methods, and partners with existing communities of SRI farmers to bring their rice to market. Sustainability and economic empowerment remain at the heart of their efforts. “New farmers must produce enough for themselves and their community before exporting even becomes a possibility,” says Lee.

As farmers flourish, so does Lotus Foods. In recent years, the company made significant investment in rebranding their line, building their management team, and solidifying their commitment to SRI. Despite some losses during the recession, the company is now poised for growth and has been profitable for the past two quarters.

Lotus Foods recently developed a new partnership with Whole Foods which is now distributing a new value-added product line. The company is continuing to develop new products and distributes via other major retailers like Safeway and Costco. In January 2013, RSF financed a line of credit to support this growth.

Working with RSF was a natural fit for Lotus Foods. “We’ve always valued working with a mission-aligned financial partner,” says Lee. “A financing relationship is one of the most important for any business owner.”

As the company grows, Levine and Lee are still focused on what inspired them in the first place: social and environmental impact. When it comes to the company’s success, they aren’t concerned with growth simply for the sake of profit. “What we really want is to expand the market for our product, so that more farmers have an opportunity to grow this way,” says Lee. “Global warming, water resources, food sovereignty, poverty alleviation—major issues worldwide—these can all be positively affected just by changing how rice is grown.”

Jillian McCoy is Senior Associate of Communications at RSF Social Finance

Shared Gifting Strengthens Local Food System in Skagit County

November 15, 2013

P1000511by Ellie Lanphier

“Thank you for being here and your willingness to join us in this experiment,” began Kelley Buhles, facilitator of the RSF Shared Gifting meeting that took place this October. While the original Shared Gifting model has been practiced for over 25 years by a group of Waldorf School administrators in the mid-states region, this Shared Gifting meeting in Skagit Valley, WA, was only the second to occur outside of the original group. As such, “experiment” is an apt word to describe Shared Gifting, an exploration of what happens when there is a shift in the balance of control in philanthropy, from the donor (giver) to the grantee (receiver). The Shared Gifting model encourages participants to develop a deeper understanding of the value of being on both sides of a transaction.

Working with RSF borrower and Skagit resident Viva Farms, and RSF investors in the Pacific Northwest, we sought nominations and subsequently grant proposals from eight organizations working to build a sustainable food system in Skagit County, WA. We then invited representatives from each organization to participate in a day-long meeting to divide up $120,000 in grant funding.

The day began with this question: what are your hopes and expectations of the meeting today? “We are excited to see the community blossoming, and to formalize our link with these organizations,” was one reply. “We want to learn how this funding process works so that we can suggest it to other funders,” said another optimistic participant who welcomed a more interactive grant process. Another response, met with nods from the other participants, highlighted the common thread for this Shared Gifting group, “we want to create a stronger food system for everyone in Skagit County.”

P1000560After sharing personal and professional stories, the group was encouraged to ask questions about each other’s proposals. The opportunity, to defend or enhance your funding proposal, is unique to Shared Gifting. In traditional philanthropy, requests for funding are often denied without explanation, which neglects important opportunities for learning. This group was able to request clarification on budget lines, program timelines, anticipated results, and outcomes. In some cases, participants amended their proposals based on the feedback they received.

When all questions were asked, each participant was told to keep $5,000 and grant out an additional $10,000 to the other organizations at the table. The group then began the incredibly hard task of dividing up the gift money. “It’s stressful, there isn’t enough money,” one participant fretted. When time was up, each organization shared their gift amounts and the reasons for the decisions they made. One organization split their money equally because they felt everyone was doing equally important work. The others divided their funds based on the perceived merit of each proposal. After viewing the first round totals, the participants were given time for additional gifting. Organizations that had received more than they had requested in their proposals were asked to consider giving away some funds to those who had received less than requested.

P1000574When gifting ceased, final gift totals were read and the group reconvened to share reflections on the day. The participants marveled that, despite working on similar issues their community, it was the first time they had all been in the same room at the same time; everyone was happy to have met and to have shared a day together. A sense of empowerment was present, and one participant shared how powerful it was to feel that you could support all the other amazing people and projects while still supporting your own work. It seemed that a new understanding was reached: the success of each organization really depends on the success of others in the community. Furthermore, the group developed a shared sense of accountability to each other and a commitment to make the best use of funds received that day.

As veterans of the grant proposal process, participants commented on how much Shared Gifting differs from traditional funding models. The key difference related to the experience of working with, not against, their peers who are often viewed as competitors. Participants valued the experience of sharing proposals, receiving important critical feedback, and having the opportunity to improve a project proposal. Additionally, everyone agreed that they would like to meet again in a year to talk about what they accomplished with the grant money, the impact of that work, and any challenges they faced. The group also created a list of others working in this community to invite to the next event.

At the reception following the meeting, Viva Farms’ Ethan Schaffer joked that RSF had invited everyone to participate under false pretenses—the real purpose of Shared Gifting is to help others understand how hard the job of a funder is. Deciding who does and doesn’t receive funding is incredibly difficult. What is so unique about Shared Gifting is that it puts the funder at the same table as the recipient opening up opportunities to foster compassion, relationships, and collaboration in an unparalleled way. By simultaneously playing the role of grantor and grantee, people are encouraged to make the most of their resources, and to do so by relying on and supporting their own community.

RSF’s mission statement, “to transform the way the world works with money,” requires making the participants in financial transactions more visible to each other. Shared Gifting is an example of how a transparent grantmaking process can build collaboration, rather than competition, amongst non-profits. As we at RSF explore and refine this model, we would like to deeply thank the participants of the Skagit meeting for demonstrating an effective and beautiful example of the Shared Gifting experiment.

Shared gifting

Economics for the Seventh Generation – Part II

November 1, 2013

This essay was originally published in the Fall 2013 RSF Quarterly

Click here for Part I

Winona LaDuke by Winona LaDuke

We did a study on the White Earth Reservation in 2008 where we interviewed about 200 households, and asked people where they shopped, when they did. We found that our community spent around eight million dollars a year on food purchases for households and tribal programs.  Seven million of those dollars went off reservation to companies like Walmart, Food Service of America, and Sysco. On top of that, the money we spent on reservation was largely sucked up by convenience stores, where we purchased really cool stuff like pop, chips, microwavable pizzas, and baked goods.

So, what are the consequences of this?

First, we end up with a hole in our economy, the size of seven million dollars. This is a drain, well, actually a hemorrhage to be honest. The figure represents about a quarter of a tribal economy.  Add to that the fact that we do the same thing with energy, representing another quarter of our economy exported, and furthermore a health services budget, which is, frankly, fed on dietary related illnesses (one-third of the Indian Health Service client population has diabetes). The hemorrhage grows. This situation means that we don’t have the local value multiplier effect, and we have little to no control over capital or the circulation of money in our community. The circumstances become worse as prices rise for the food we have to bring in. After all, that food has to move on average 1500 miles from farmer to table, and requires a whole bunch of oil from fertilizer additives to packaging.  This results in more and more food insecurity, energy insecurity, and health insecurity.  And, more climate change—maybe a quarter of the climate change is associated with unsustainable agriculture.

So, what is the solution?

This is the happy part. It turns out that our ancestors and my father had it right. My father used to say to me, “Winona, I don’t want to hear your philosophy, if you can’t grow corn.”  Now that’s an interesting thing to say to your child.   Well, I thought about it, and thought about it some more. And then, I decided to grow corn. Along the way, I became an economist who wanted to look at the systems that support sovereignty and self-determination, namely our economic system.

This is how it is playing out. Take my house for example. We’re an extended family of ten or so people at various times. This is a two deer, one pig, 100 hundred fish, ten duck household.  This is complemented by 300 pounds of wild rice and corn, 200 pounds of potatoes, berries, maple syrup, squash, and a lot of canned goods.  We grow, harvest, and trade this.  I don’t grow potatoes because I know someone who grows them way better than I do. And, I don’t mess with chickens because the Amish are good at that.

Now, this means a lot of hard work. But, it also means I can keep my waistline somewhere I might be able to find it, on a good day.  It turns out, these foods are roughly twice as high in protein, and two to three times more nutritious than anything you can get at the store. This has, in short, immense positive health implications.

Now apply that to 9,000 tribal members hanging around White Earth, and you’ve got a bustling local economy, if you work it right. Our plan is to grow as much traditional food as our ancestors grew. Over the past ten years, we’ve worked to restore Anishinaabe agriculture growing 800 year old varieties of squash, northern corn varieties (hominy or flint corn, with twice the protein and half the calories of market corn) and doing so, this year and next year, increasingly with horse power. Yes, horse power.

We sell these goods locally to create a multiplier, and then sell surplus to people who value Native food. This is what we are working on at Native Harvest.

What I know is that we are good at localized agriculture. While the paradigm of a “war on poverty” is creating a labor force focused on training and retraining my community for jobs which do not exist, or linking us to a dysfunctional economic system, we are intent upon shoring up that which we know can last for another thousand years: a self-reliant economic system that does not require massive inputs of fossil fuels, because, we all know that fossil fuels belong in the ground, not in our food system, and not in our air.

So, what is the value of this?

Well start with this, it’s intangible. Health is awesome. It’s also awesome to grow a squash that’s been around for 800 years or so, or some corn that might last in a time of climate change, because it’s not a mono crop, it’s short of stalk, and drought and frost resistant.  Not bad, those ancestors. Then, think about how we are restoring some things which are sacred, and hopefully keeping them from getting genetically altered (like our battles to protect wild rice and corn, our mother grain).   We’re building some sense of economic stability for the future, while we get some control over our health, food, and energy systems—these are all interrelated.

Food sovereignty is an affirmation of who we are as Indigenous peoples and one of the most sure-footed ways to restore our relationship with the world around us.

In this millennium, our people are told that we have a choice between two paths—one that is well worn but scorched, or one that is green. Our community is choosing the green path. That is the work of restoring Indigenous ways of living and land-based economics for the seventh generation. What will your community choose?

Winona LaDuke is an internationally acclaimed author, orator and activist. A graduate of Harvard and Antioch Universities with advanced degrees in rural economic development, LaDuke has devoted her life to protecting the lands and life ways of Native communities. In 1994, Time magazine named her one of America’s fifty most promising leaders under forty years of age, and in 1997 she was named Ms. Magazine Woman of the Year. She is Founding Director of the White Earth Land Recovery Project and Executive Director of Honor the Earth.

Economics for the Seventh Generation – Part I

October 30, 2013

This essay was originally published in the Fall 2013 RSF Quarterly

Winona LaDuke by Winona LaDuke

“Seems like people don’t want to stick around another thousand years.”    —Mike Wiggins, Tribal Chairman of the Bad River Band of Anishinaabe, on the proposed GTAC taconite mine, which will impact the watershed of the Bad River.

Let’s say that is not true.  Let’s say that we are people who want to live in a way that restores our relationship with Mother Earth. We want to live in small, medium, and large communities, with a low fossil fuel impact on the world.

Ji misawaabandaaming, or how we envision our future, is a worldview of positive thinking.  It’s an Anishinaabe worldview, coming from a place and a cultural way of life that has been here, on the same land, for 10,000 years.  To transform modern society into one based on survival, not conquest, we need to make some changes.  We need to actualize an economic and social transformation. Restoring an economics, which makes sense for upcoming generations, needs to be a priority. In our community, we think of this as economics for the seventh generation.

In our teachings we have some clear direction: our intention is Minobimaatisiiwin, a spiritual, mental, physical and emotional happiness—sort of an Anishinaabe version of Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Index.  Within our cultural teachings lie these Indigenous Economic Principles: intergenerational thinking and equity (thinking for the seventh generation); inter- and intra-species equity (respect); and valuing those spiritual and intangible facets of the natural world and cultural practice (not all values and things can be monetized).

After I graduated from college in 1981, I returned to my own community, the White Earth Indian Reservation in Minnesota (the reservation on which the federal government recognizes I am a Native person), and began a journey of working towards building this restorative economics.

Our work at the White Earth Land Recovery Project and Native Harvest begins from a cultural premise. We need to restore our relationship to place (we now hold 1400 acres of land as a land trust) and we need to determine what an economy looks like which is Indigenous.  Our focus has been in the traditional economy, that which involves extensive subsistence agriculture and falls outside the definition of market economies. Food is at the center of this system.

Food Sovereignty

“I don’t think we can call ourselves sovereign if we can’t feed ourselves.” This is what Paul “Sugarbear” Smith told me a few years ago when I went to visit him in Oneida Territory, Wisconsin.  I think he’s got something here and it’s worth looking into.

What is food sovereignty? The ability to feed your people. Let’s say that.  This could be through your own growing and harvesting, or this could be through trade, if you’re happy with it and it’s working out for you.  This is where we need to be, but certainly aren’t there now.

Let’s review how we got to our current situation.

When the Europeans came to America, they had no land, and brought very little food with them. The incidence of scurvy, diphtheria, and a whole litany of diseases, many of them linked to malnutrition, was overwhelming.  We fed them, and taught them how to eat, here on this land, omaa akiing. For the record, Native people gave the world some big food.  Corn and potatoes, for instance, make up a huge percentage of world food calories and nutrition, and represent immense value per acre. Not bad. We were good at this stuff.  As an example, we Anishinaabe were the northern most corn growers in the world, pushing corn about a hundred miles north of Winnipeg, and our agro-biodiversity abounded. Overall, Indigenous peoples developed some 8000 varieties of corn, not to mention everything from pumpkins to chocolate.  All pretty cool stuff.

Fast-forward post-colonialism and we are now a terribly dependent people, or peoples.  By and large, we have ceased to farm our own foods and lands, all part of a logical consequence of theft, genocide, allotment, boarding schools, land alienation, and the lack of access to basic capital for even small-scale farming. We are net importers of food, and it’s costly. And even some of our largest tribal food enterprises like the Navajo Agricultural Products, Inc. and Gila River, produce food, not for Navajos, but for markets elsewhere. Thousands of acres of our tribal lands are leased out to non-Indian producers who ship across the world.  And, in the meantime, we’re not looking good.

Click here for Part II

Winona LaDuke is an internationally acclaimed author, orator and activist. A graduate of Harvard and Antioch Universities with advanced degrees in rural economic development, LaDuke has devoted her life to protecting the lands and life ways of Native communities. In 1994, Time magazine named her one of America’s fifty most promising leaders under forty years of age, and in 1997 she was named Ms. Magazine Woman of the Year. She is Founding Director of the White Earth Land Recovery Project and Executive Director of Honor the Earth.

Food & Agriculture

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