KASHENA, Wis. – At the Save-A-Lot on Warrington Road, a savvy Menominee shopper can get carrots, tomatoes or lettuce on the store’s “10 for $10” promotion.  The choices are loaded with meaning because the bargain food chain is the first grocery store in nine years that tribal citizens have had in their midst, said Menominee council member, Bruce Pecore.

The Menominee Economic Development Authority Board approved the purchase of the $1.6 million store with tribal funds, partially gaming derived, to help erase a persistent food desert—a geographic area defined as having no access to healthy foods.  Here on the tree-filled Wisconsin reservation, the Let’s Move! in Indian Country program germinated.

Families in the 8,860-citizen tribe knew they were not getting their money’s worth for food which was mostly processed and nutritionally unsound, according to the tribal councilor. For the Menominee, a simple questionnaire hit home.

“We looked at a study that showed our kids circled frozen pizza and bags of chips, you know, convenience food that they were eating,” he said. “The grocery store allows them to get healthy food they need without having to drive to get it.”

At its one-year anniversary mark, the national Lets Move! in Indian Country movement is unfunded by federal monies and buttressed mostly by a multi-pronged media campaign through the Department of Interior (DOI).  Officials are pushing the anti-obesity and diabetes philosophy across Indian Country through webcast press conferences, YouTube and blogs. The less food is more effort mirrors First Lady Michelle Obama’s bigger Let’s Move! program nationwide.

But without federal subsidizing, local efforts are the anti-obesity directive’s main artery. In the various tribal communities, Let’s Move style funding parcels in a mix of private groups, tribal gaming and non-profits monies.  The motivation for Let’s Move! is mounting. Statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), relate that half of American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) children are obese and are twice as likely to develop Type II diabetes than any other racial group.

One strategy on the tribal level focuses on taking the hassle out of getting healthy food. Because the nearest grocery store is 30 miles away, Santa Domingo is another of the food deserts dotted across Indian Country. Shoppers line up at the climate controlled trailer that rolls onto the reservation.  Here fresh food is within reach, officials said.

The MoGro mobile grocery is a partnership of the W.W. Kellogg Foundation, NB3 (Notah Begay) Foundation, La Montanita Co-op, MoGro, Santa Domingo Pueblo and the Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health. Plans are for the truck to make bi-weekly visits to pueblos (Cochiti, San Felipe, Jemez) in New Mexico to put sustainable foods on Indian tables. The walk-in truck, which started as a trailer, illustrates how tribal think tanks fight funding limitations on issues like diabetes and obesity in children.

Basketball camps, diabetes camps and storytelling also spread the idea that true inactivity takes a lot of time and bad food is hazardous to their health.  Other jurisdictions are building walking trails and customized exercise areas near schools to break the cycle of the sofa mentality.  Elsewhere, tribal programs are replacing beef with buffalo in school lunches.

Results for any anti-obesity and diabetes movement in Indian Country are long and short term, said Kristin Speakman, program manager at Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health. Already the USDA points out that 20 percent of Indian children from birth to two years in the nutritional Women Infants and Children (WIC) program are obese.

Speakman said short term goals are that Indian children will feel better and fare better if they eat nutritional foods. Over the long run, reducing national obesity rates will follow, but it takes time, she added.

“A huge barrier for tribes is getting access,” Speakman said. “But making the food affordable is key.”

Meanwhile, Ground Zero in the fight against childhood obesity is the dinner table and health experts want Indian parents to opt out on sugary drinks, reduce simple carbohydrates and eliminate fried, fatty foods from meal and snack times.

Coupled with high unemployment and poverty rates among Indians, feeding the youth becomes tricky because federal food programs often don’t meet the deficiency. Food allowances for these programs run out by mid-month, leaving Indian children hungry and parents more vulnerable to spending money on items that are not healthy.

At its one year mark, Let’s Move! in Indian Country gets the ball rolling, officials said. They say technical assistance to start proven tribal initiatives would push members toward eating healthier where they may not try before.  Until then, the tribes are forging their own healthier food paths, like the Kashena Save-A-Lot and the MoGro trucks.

“It’s twofold,” Pecore said. “I believe Let’s Move! works if people try to do it themselves, but they may not have the money to start something up.”

For more information on the MoGro mobile truck: www.mogro.net or the NB3 Foundation; www.nb3foundation.org.

A shopper looks at fresh produce in the MoGro truck that visited the San Felipe Pueblo In New Mexico. The truck is a collaboration of non-profit, foundations and tribes to bring better foods to Indian people at the one-year mark of the Bureau of Indian Affairs Let’s Move! in Indian Country initiative, an anti-obesity-diabetes measure.