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2000s Archive

No Such Thing as a Free Lunch

Originally Published April 2009
For generations, the students at Red Cloud Indian School raised their own food—then the federal government got into the act. Ever hear of a road paved with good intentions?
red cloud indian school

At Red Cloud in the early 1920s, Brother Theodore Sturm’s pupils learned how to put meals on the table. The kitchen was the heart of the school.

In the 1880s, the Lakota chief Red Cloud turned away from the buffalo hunt. He turned his back on the militant resistance of Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull that would lead both warrior chiefs to violent deaths. He settled on the arid, harsh Pine Ridge Reservation in the Badlands of western South Dakota and began the painful process of assimilation.

One of the first decisions Red Cloud made was to invite Jesuit “Black Robes” to set up a boarding school to teach Lakota children and their families how to farm. The school would be a bridge to a new way of life, a refuge from the radical change that was destroying traditional Lakota culture and diet.

The idea that the gumbo-soil grasslands that sustained small migratory herds of elk, deer, and buffalo could be transformed into prosperous family farms now seems absurd. But on the narrow floodplain of little White Clay Creek, in the shadow of native corn patches and thickets of chokecherries and wild plums, the Jesuits built a school and, for more than a century, nurtured a self-sustaining community. As the decades rolled by and the reservation sank into the nation’s worst poverty, Red Cloud Indian School survived as a sanctuary for the best and brightest college-bound Lakota students. At the center of its identity was its ability to feed its people.

Cecelia Fire Thunder is the former president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. She enrolled at Red Cloud in 1952 and stayed there until 1963. “We would go back to school in September,” she says, “and the boys would immediately start with the harvest of potatoes and cabbage. They made enough sauerkraut to last for years. The girls would can and cook. I became a good cook at Red Cloud. Some of the priests were dairy farmers, and the boys milked the cows every day. We always had fresh milk, and we would skim the cream right off the top. I remember wringing the necks of chickens and dipping them in boiling water to make it easier to pick the feathers. The main thing was three square meals a day. No junk food. And nobody went hungry.”

Henrietta Cross Dog started at Red Cloud in 1953. I ask her what she remembers most about the school farm. She thinks for a while, and then laughs quietly to herself. “Nobody ever got sick.”

The history of American Indian boarding schools is extremely conflicted, and horror stories about the abuse of the children are legendary. Schools like Red Cloud that have survived into the 21st century have been forced to undergo painful soul-searching and reconciliation. But as today’s students and faculty struggle with the related epidemics of obesity and diabetes, there are aspects of the troubled past that hold positive lessons for the future.

Brother Mike Zimmerman stands on a concrete landing outside the cafeteria and points. “All that land where the football field is now used to be the garden.” “Ten acres, twenty?” I ask. He chuckles. “Oh, no. Much bigger.” He turns, indicating an area behind the machine shop. “Over there was a huge potato field and a chicken coop. We kept hundreds of chickens. We also had a cattle ranch.”

Students took classes in home economics, farming, carpentry, and outdoor survival. They also worked hard in the fields, the bakery, and the kitchen. The ovens and dough mixers, bread slicers, ten-gallon milk cans, even coffee grinders gather cobwebs in the basement of the 19th-century brick building. Grappling hooks still hang from the iron rails of the meat locker. Brother Mike crabwalks under the new heating ducts suspended from the low ceiling and gestures to the wide, cool floors where apples were stored. Fifty years ago, this basement was a busy place.

There was never a final decision to dispense with Red Cloud’s commitment to self-sufficiency. It just fell victim to a hundred small decisions and a cascade of unintended consequences. In 1910, for example, when the Great Sioux Nation was broken up and the best fields were sold to white farmers, parts of the Red Cloud farm were dispersed. When the worst stories of abuse at boarding schools surfaced, many liberal supporters of the school found the idea of children working to grow food an offensive echo of forced child labor. In the 1960s, when the school stopped boarding students, there was a natural expectation that they would eat at home. As farm bill after farm bill promoted formalized school lunch programs, regulatory standards became stricter and the rhythms of the school’s food system broke down. As sanitary regulations were tightened, students could no longer wash the dishes. Perhaps most importantly, knowledge slipped away. The Jesuit farmer-priests retired and died. No one replaced them. Idealistic young teachers arrived, but they taught history and chemistry, English composition and physics. No one was a farmer.

Then, in the 1990s, the Lakota Nation woke up to the fact that diabetes was sweeping through every family. (Today, the Indian Health Service reports that nearly a quarter of the adults on the reservation are diabetic.) Great numbers of children were obese and suffering from symptoms of diabetes. Red Cloud students were eating meals at the Pizza Hut in Pine Ridge or at Big Bat’s gas station and convenience store, which features deep-fried fast food and 44-ounce soda pop “specials.”

A few enterprising teachers at Red Cloud asked their students to keep diaries tracking their daily eating habits. The results were shocking. Not only were students eating unhealthy food at home, many were not eating any food at all other than what they were served at school.

Red Cloud officials resolved to begin a Healthy Meals program. The cafeteria staff started to serve breakfast for all the younger students—kindergarten through eighth grade—and a hot lunch for the entire student body. Throughout the day, even as they lined up for their buses after school, the pupils were offered fresh fruit snacks.

Then, three years ago, Red Cloud administrators made the difficult decision to eliminate soda pop, candy, and processed snacks in campus vending machines, and that had expensive repercussions. “Our high school students used to hang out in their lounge eating chips and soda for lunch,” explains school superintendent Robert Brave Heart Sr. “When we took out the machines, those students starting showing up in the cafeteria, and that increased the number of lunches we had to provide every day.”

It is a testament to the depth of lost knowledge that as the school struggled to fight its way out of poor eating habits, no one considered returning to farming or the tradition of self-sufficiency. Instead, the school developed its program within the parameters of existing federal policy, which relies on institutional commodity food suppliers to ship food to places such as Red Cloud.

I ask Father Peter Klink, the president of Red Cloud, why the school doesn’t purchase grass-fed buffalo from the tribal herd just a few miles from the school. “I don’t believe that buffalo meat is very accessible to us, and I am fairly confident that it is not distributed to school lunch programs as a commodity,” he says. “We also have to be very careful about the approval guidelines of the National School Lunch Program and the standards of our own food-service provider. I suspect that with all the needed approvals, serving buffalo would be very expensive for us at this time.” Healthy food—so close and yet so far.

What is not too expensive are bananas from Central America, which hang with Red Delicious apples in baskets around the school. The fruits are part of a little-known federal project that is at the heart of the school’s new commitment to health. The Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program was slipped into the 2002 Farm Bill by Iowa Senator Tom Harkin as a supplement to school lunch programs at about 100 schools around the country. For most students at Red Cloud, though, this pilot project provides the only fresh food in their diet.

When I visited the school in early January, the lunch menu consisted of breaded chicken, hard and dry as a bone, on a white-bread bun, and portions of Tater Tots and boiled carrots. At the end of the line, however, there was an inconspicuous bowl of cantaloupe pieces, as well as a portable salad bar of iceberg lettuce, broccoli florets, cherry tomatoes, pickles, shaved carrots, and the ubiquitous addition to all modern salad bars—grated cheese.

In the 2008 Farm Bill, Senator Harkin fought hard to expand the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program to schools in all 50 states. Funding for the program is now mandated: $40 million this fiscal year, with an increase to $150 million by 2011, when it is expected to serve up to 3 million low-income students. He also established a program to support school and community gardens, and he added language to encourage school districts to purchase food when possible from local farmers and ranchers rather than from large institutional contractors. These programs are perfectly designed for schools like Red Cloud, with its extensive land base and past history. But although the school garden program is authorized, so far it is unfunded by the Agriculture Appropriations Committee. In the face of the current recession, there’s a good chance that the program may never be implemented.

The irony is sharp. At the same time that the Indian Health Service and the nation are spending hundreds of millions of dollars trying to control obesity and diabetes, the school lunch program seems unable to escape from its dependence on processed commodity foods. Robert Brave Heart illustrates the dilemma: “I have to make cuts and balance our desire for healthy food with our economic limits. Commodity foods are cheaper. A lunch of hot roast beef and fresh vegetables for the students costs six hundred dollars. A commodity meal like Tater Tot casserole costs twenty-six dollars.”

I ask Brave Heart if there is any interest in reviving the school garden. He looks at me as if I have parachuted in from another planet. “Who would do it?” he asks. “It would require machinery and staff to make it work. Someone would have to water it and pull weeds all summer when the students are gone. Right now, I’d say a garden isn’t on anyone’s radar screen.” These days, with the economy collapsing around him and federal funding for Harkin’s garden program unlikely, Brave Heart has no choice but to chase cheap food, and cheap food is commodity food.

In truth, the younger generation has little patience for growing or cooking food. I meet a senior who is on his way to college in the fall. I ask if he knows how to cook. “Yes, I like to cook.” “What do you like to cook most?” “Boxed macaroni and cheese in the microwave.” I wait for him to break open the joke, but he stares at me earnestly and doesn’t laugh.

Every autumn, though, there is one small ceremony that keeps Red Cloud in touch with ancient traditions. Under the supervision of the tribal parks department, the high school students participate in a buffalo kill behind the machine shop, where the chicken coop used to be. It is a time of prayer. The students seem to grasp that food is sacred, part of their culture and part of their survival as a tribe. Of course, the meat cannot be served in the cafeteria, but it is divided up and sent home with students. This year, though the kill didn’t happen. “I don’t know why,” says the senior. “I think they couldn’t get the gun to work.”

Thank You for Not Smoking

School farm programs are on the rise, and in Appalachia students with an interest in agriculture are starting to benefit from the demise of tobacco. Farmers are rapidly losing the crop, so they’re being forced to find new ways to live off their land. One increasingly popular solution: Go young. The Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project’s Growing Minds program was developed in 2006, its funding coming entirely from government grants and private donations. The goal: to cultivate mutually beneficial relationships between farms and area schools. “It’s important for kids to know where their food comes from, especially given the childhood obesity epidemic. If they feel connected, they’ll make better choices,” says Rose McLarney, the program’s communication and marketing coordinator. “And the local farmers need help transitioning from tobacco to economically viable alternatives. Fresh vegetables could be part of the answer.” Through Growing Minds, students take field trips to local farms to learn how to plant and care for their own school gardens. When their crops have been harvested, local chefs come to teach the kids how to turn their bounty into healthy, tasty dishes. The hope is that, once home, the children will persuade Mom and Dad to stop smoking cigarettes and start steaming vegetables. —Chris Dudley