Last year, after a persistent battle to gain the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) attention, KivaSun Foods, an all-natural, traditional Native food company founded by Notah Begay III (half Navajo, ¼ San Felipe and ¼ Isleta), secured an agreement for the purchase of 520,000 pounds of bison for inclusion in the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR) commodity offering.
“When we were notified that we won the business with the USDA, it was a very emotional moment for me, because we’ve finally gotten to the point in time where a Native American-owned entity has come full circle and now has the honor to provide high-quality, traditional healthy food to Native American people who need it,” Begay told ICTMN.
KivaSun has been successfully providing bison, a healthy and culturally rich protein, in the commercial market through retail accounts such as Costco and Walmart and online at www.kivasunfoods.com. The first shipment of bison to FDPIR recipients was delivered at the end of October 2015, and all subsequent shipments have been delivered on time. Thus far, KivaSun Foods has distributed 150,000 pounds of bison to Natives through commodity food packages and is on target to provide the total 520,000 pounds to FDPIR by contract end, June 30, 2016. KivaSun Foods is applying to renew its contract with the USDA and intends to earn regular inclusion in the food distribution program.
“We hope to be a longterm provider for FDPIR,” KivaSun Foods President Mark Freeland told ICTMN. “We have the ability to reliably and consistently provide bison to the FDPIR program month in and month out moving forward. In fact, we would love to see bison included as a one of the regular proteins in the food basket because of the well documented health benefits of bison.”
Next steps will involve measuring the beneficial impact of empowering Natives to put this lean, traditional protein on their kitchen tables. “We’re going to work closely with the food package review group as far as tracking where the products are going and what the response is,” Freeland said. “Once that happens, hopefully we can work to measure the increased overall health profile of the food basket and get more traditional foods into the program.”
KivaSun’s inclusion in commodity packages will hopefully open the door to the USDA purchasing more traditional Native foods from Native sources to give to Native communities. “If this happens, it will be a significant step forward in addressing health disparities among Native Americans resulting from lack of access to healthy, affordable food,” Begay said.
At the urging of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), tribal leaders, and healthy food advocates, Congress directed the USDA in the 2015 Farm Bill, which includes an additional $5 million for the purchase of traditional and locally-grown food for FDPIR. A compelling and eye-opening report titled “Feeding Ourselves: Food Access, Health Disparities, and the Pathways to Healthy Native American Communities” played a vital role in garnering support to influence the USDA.
The “Feeding Ourselves” report, commissioned by the American Heart Association (AHA) and its Voices for Healthy Kids, a joint initiative of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and AHA, was co-authored by Crystal Echo Hawk (Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma), founder and president of Echo Hawk Consulting; Janie Simms Hipp (Chickasaw Nation), director of the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative at the University of Arkansas School of Law; and Wilson Pipestem (an enrolled member of the Otoe-Missouria Tribe and an Osage headright holder), founder of Pipestem Law and Ietan Consulting. “Feeding Ourselves” explores the complex historical and contemporary challenges to Native American healthy food access, childhood obesity and health disparities — including a close look at the evolution of Federal Indian policy.
“Among the recommendations of the Feeding Ourselves report was to hold the USDA accountable about the quality of its food packages,” said Echo Hawk. “More traditional foods need to be introduced into those packages. My coauthors [Hipp and Pipestem] were both instrumental in working with KivaSun to advise and apply pressure to the USDA to get the contract looked at. It was a huge victory.”
Begay views the relationship with the USDA as a channel to supporting Native families, who now have access to nutritious and culturally rich food. As underscored during pivotal conversations at the Fertile Ground Funders’ Roundtable, embracing Native culture and traditional foodways is crucial to reversing the tides of obesity and diabetes in Indian country.
(The Fertile Ground Funders’ Roundtable convened 41 national, regional, local and Native funders, as well as federal and state agencies, in Minneapolis in October, led by the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community and AHA with the assistance of Echo Hawk Consulting. Discussions centered around food access and social determinants of health in Indian country, and ways to affect sustainable change. Cultural reclamation was central to these conversations about potential solutions that could be reached through policy changes at the tribal, federal and philanthropic levels.)
“The USDA has confidence we can come through and fulfill the terms of our agreement. That gives me hope and inspiration, because I don’t feel like we’re servicing the USDA with this relationship — we’re servicing American Indian families in dire need of hope, families who can be proud of the food they’re putting on the table, because it’s of the highest quality and it’s traditional and from a Native provider. That’s certainly a step in the right direction,” Begay told ICTMN.
Begay is highly aware of the uphill battle Native youth face compared to other races, and how those Native health disparities are deeply connected to U.S. Indian policy, poverty, historical trauma and food systems.
“All you have to do is look at the basic health profile of the American Indian,” Begay said. “When you’re born as an American Indian, you’re born with the lowest life expectancy of anyone in the country … and with a one-in-two chance of developing Type II diabetes [by adulthood].”
In addition, “about three out of every 10 American Indian students drop out before graduating from high school both on reservations and in cities,” according to the Feeding Ourselves report.
While Begay is committed to leveling the playing field for American Indians, he is also no stranger to competing on a national level without receiving any special treatment for his minority status. The four-time PGA Tour winner’s achievements have meant more to him, and served as inspiration to so many Native youth, because he rose to the challenge and succeeded among the best of the best.
Similarly to Begay, KivaSun Foods winning Costco and Walmart’s business in 2012 reflected and solidified KivaSun’s place as a reliable and valued competitor in the national food industry.
“When I competed in golf, nobody ever gave me the benefit of the doubt or cut me any slack just because I was a minority,” Begay said. “As an American Indian, I had to compete at the same level as everyone else, regardless of whether I had substandard equipment or our facilities were not as good. I had to play against the best players in the world. And I feel that there are truly Native-owned businesses in this country that can compete with the best businesses in the world. That’s why we we pursued partnerships with Costco and Walmart; they don’t accept substandard relationships. They don’t’ let things slip through cracks just because we’re a minority vendor.”
Honoring its Native Roots
KivaSun Foods stands upon the ancient traditions of “Respect for Land and Reverence for Food” — values intrinsic to the success and survival of tribes. The company’s name reflects its ties to Native spirit. Kiva is a sacred meeting place for celebration for Pueblo Indians of the Southwest. The Sun is a source of light, and across every culture, it represents energy, health and optimism. Bison, in addition to being a staple of the traditional Native diet, are central to Native spiritual existence. The animals are honored in ceremony, song and prayer, and revered for living in harmony with nature. Beyond nutrition and sustenance, Natives use parts of the body to fashion tools, build shelter and create warm clothing.
“The Native American heritage of KivaSun Foods is woven throughout every aspect of our company – from the company name to the development of our products, making KivaSun a truly authentic brand,” Begay said.
KivaSun’s bison are raised primarily in Montana, Wyoming and South Dakota, where the animals have existed for thousands of years. The all-natural bison are grass-fed for 95 percent of their lives and then finished on a non-GMO, vegetarian diet to provide a consistent, delicious flavor and marbling. Each animal is allocated multiple acres on which to roam; they are harvested between 26 and 30 months.
All KivaSun bison products are pure and healthy, prepared with no added hormones or antibiotics. Raised sustainably and with great care, bison has approximately 30 percent more protein and 30 percent less fat than beef. It’s an excellent source of iron, zinc and certain B vitamins, including vitamin B12 and niacin. It is illegal to use growth hormones in bison, and KivaSun bison is antibiotic free.
KivaSun sells thick-cut bison steaks, 90-percent-lean bison burgers, bison chili, and naturally smoked and fully cooked bison dogs and sausages — and most recently, jerky. KivaSun Foods started in 2010 as a wholesaler of fresh and frozen bison products, and is now seizing the opportunity to introduce an antibiotic-free and no-added-hormone bison jerky to its lineup.
The portable, lean protein is targeted at athletes and active audiences seeking to enhance their nutrition and performance. KivaSun offers bison jerky in two flavors: Original and Hatch Chile; the Hatch Chile flavor uses subtly sweet New Mexico Hatch Green Chiles in the recipe.
KivaSun’s complete line of bison products, including its jerky, are sold to both foodservice accounts and retailers such as Costco and Walmart, as well as online at www.kivasunfoods.com.
Begay is thrilled to bring bison jerky to the market. “Food is universal – it feeds the body and soul,” Begay said. “Native Americans have existed on bison for centuries and now everyone – from children to athletes can experience this amazing product.”
Proceeds of KivaSun’s sales support the Notah Begay III (NB3) Foundation, a federally recognized non-profit founded by Begay and committed to reducing childhood obesity and type 2 diabetes among Native children. The NB3 Foundation provides sub-grantees with grants and technical assistance resources to support community-driven solutions to increase access to healthy and affordable food and physical activity in communities. Since 2009, the NB3 Foundation has awarded more than $1.6 million to more than 50 tribes and Native nonprofits.
“I’m so very proud and feel lucky to be affiliated with the staff at the NB3 Foundation,” Begay said. “We’re grassroots. We work with families and children dealing with these health issues [obesity and diabetes] on a daily basis. Our staff has continued to evolve and stay committed to our Native Strong: Healthy Kids, Healthy Futures program, which is doing extremely well with regard to providing guidance and technical assistance for other health-related programs with their pursuit of community health.”
KivaSun is yet another way for Begay to give back to Indian country and support the healthy development of Native youth.
“A company like KivaSun is my dream come true,” Begay told ICTMN. “At heart, I’m still a kid enjoying the chance to really help out my people. I love them.”