Indigenous baby food aims to improve health of babies and the environment

A woman stands and looks at the camera in front of an orange building.
Sharon Day stands for a portrait outside of the Indigenous People's Task Force Office in Minneapolis.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Native Americans are more likely than any other group to have diabetes, and Sharon Day wants to start addressing the problem early — really early.

Day is executive director of the Indigenous Peoples Task Force in Minneapolis, which is preparing to release a baby food next year under the brand name Indigi-Baby. It will be made from traditional Native American ingredients like wild rice, Gete-Okosomin squash and rutabaga.

“Why do we wait until people are pre-diabetic before we try to get them to eat healthy foods?” said Day, who is a member of the Bois Forte Band of Ojibwe.

Indigi-Baby products won’t just be for Native babies, but it could be especially beneficial to them. Native people are particularly vulnerable to chronic illnesses like diabetes and heart disease in large part because of diet.

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“We used to be so healthy, and we had lean diets and we ate foods that grew here,” Day said.

That changed, she said, when the government moved Native Americans to reservations and their diet changed to what she calls “commodity foods” — like white flour, white sugar and canned meat, which are high in fat and calories and low in other nutrients. Highly processed foods continue to be common in many Native homes.

The recipes for Indigi-Baby food were created with chef and nurse Lori Watso, a member of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Community: wild rice and blueberry with maple syrup; Gete-Okosomin squash and buttercup squash; and wild rice and aronia berry.

They’ve also been working with Kalidas Shetty, a food scientist at North Dakota State University, to make sure their food is high in fiber, antioxidants, and vitamins.

The goals for Indigi-Baby go beyond nutrition. The Indigenous Peoples Task Force is growing much of the produce on a few acres just south of the Twin Cities in accordance with agroecological principles. They don’t use pesticides, they plant cover crops to reduce run-off and improve soil health, and they plant a variety of produce together.

A man stands on a farm
Mike Neumann stands on the farm in Farmington, Minn., where the Indigenous Peoples Task Force is growing produce for a new baby food called Indigi-Baby.
Max Nesterak | MPR News

“Agroecology is about the biodiversity, the farm ecosystem, the community,” said Mike Neumann, the project manager for Indigi-Baby. “We want to be able to demonstrate that the soil is healthier, there are more pollinators, and there are more diverse animals than when we started.”

What they can’t grow, they’re sourcing from other sustainable farms or harvesting — like the wild rice.

This attention to principles means Indigi-Baby will be more expensive than other brands, but Day thinks moms will see the value in paying a higher price.

“Around the community we see young mothers with their babies with their little Nike shoes that cost like $35 because they want their babies to have the very best. What our success will be is when those new moms want their babies to be eating Indigi-Baby food because they want the very best for their child,” Day said.

They expect to produce only about 5,000 units next year, and some is already spoken for by the Native American Community Clinic.

Eventually, Day hopes you’ll be able to find it in big grocers like Whole Foods, as well as the corner store on the reservation.