‘Food is medicine’: Native chefs making healthy meals for Twin Cities elders

People pose for a photo in a large kitchen
Chefs and volunteers are cooking and delivering meals every weekday, focusing on healthy foods with at least 50 percent indigenous ingredients.
Courtesy of Brian Yazzie

When Gatherings Cafe in Minneapolis closed to the public in March, its kitchen got busy. 

A team of chefs works there from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. every weekday, cooking meals for Native elders in the Twin Cities. Volunteer drivers deliver to the elders’ homes, for free, so they can limit time in public as the spread of COVID-19 continues hitting the elderly and communities of color the hardest.

The meal delivery program started small, serving only people in south Minneapolis. It has grown every day, chef Brian Yazzie said, now serving lunches to some 200 people throughout the Twin Cities.

The chefs’ philosophy is “food is medicine,” Yazzie said, “especially during this time of pandemic for the elders to keep their immune system as strong as possible.”

Part of that is keeping the meals as simple as possible, Yazzie said. Chefs try to minimize ingredients with dairy, gluten or processed sugar. Instead, they favor of indigenous ingredients like natural corn flour and agave, a healthier sweetener. 

A meal sits in a box
A meal sits in a box.
Submitted images

But with much of the world closed or slowed, Yazzie said most indigenous ingredients are harder than usual to find. And he said many of the ingredients the chefs get donated are heavily processed.

Still, the chefs are using at least 50 percent indigenous ingredients in the lunches. Yazzie said they try to add snacks to the lunchboxes and on Fridays, they’ll throw in cedar or sage tea. Last Friday, the Minnesota Indigenous Business Alliance provided masks, gloves and COVID-19 information packets to go with the lunches. 

Grants from Blue Cross Blue Shield Minnesota and World Central Kitchen are helping fund the meals.

In Minnesota and across the country, COVID-19 is disproportionately harming communities of color.

“The latest available COVID-19 mortality rate for Black Americans is 2.2 times higher than the rate for Latinos, 2.3 times higher than the rate for Asians and 2.6 times higher than the rate for Whites,” according to the nonpartisan APM Research Lab, a sister company to MPR News. 

When it comes to indigenous groups, the lab said coronavirus data reporting is inconsistent from state to state, making it difficult to provide accurate accountings for how COVID-19 is affecting those people.

Minnesota, for example, on Monday listed 113 confirmed cases in people who identified as American Indian and Alaska Native. Nineteen more were in those identifying as Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander. However, there were over 6,600 cases in people claiming multiple races, “Other,” or where race information was unknown or missing. 

But if the country’s largest reservation is any indicator for the rest of the U.S., tribal members are suffering. The Navajo Nation in the southwestern U.S. has one of the nation’s highest per-capita COVID-19 case rates. 

Yazzie, the chef, grew up on the Navajo Nation in Dennehotso, Arizona, before moving to Minnesota in 2013.

When he saw other chefs of color helping their communities at the beginning of the pandemic, Yazzie said, he knew he needed to help his elders. 

“The indigenous community — the original people of Minnesota — is always left out,” he said. “Always put on the backburner.”

And for Yazzie, cooking is his way of helping change that.

For more information on the meals for elders program and a link to donate, visit the Gatherings Cafe website.

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