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FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Representatives from the Corporation for National and Community Service met with staff of the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative at the University of Arkansas School of Law on Jan. 30-31 to discuss the implementation of a new national volunteer partnership program with VISTA, the Volunteers in Service to America.

Initiative director Janie Simms Hipp and members of her staff met with Opal Sims and Derek Cromwell, from the service’s Arkansas office, and Michael Laverty, the area manager of the service’s southwest cluster office of field liaison. They discussed how the organizations will work together to recruit, train and deploy a cadre of “Native Food Sovereignty Fellows” to selected locations across Indian Country.

The 21 initial fellows will be AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers working in low-resource Native American communities to establish and stabilize food sovereignty efforts, food systems, and tribal economies to build economic opportunities in food and agriculture.

Cromwell hopes that this partnership will improve the lives of Native American people.

“That’s what we are here for,” Cromwell said. “If we can change the life of one person, that’s a success. That’s important.”

The Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community in Minnesota announced earlier in the month that it will provide a $200,000 gift to the partnership to fund the cost-share for VISTA members’ living allowance in the first year of the program. The gift is part of the community’s Seeds of Native Health campaign to improve Native American nutrition and food access. This will be the first time a tribe has provided funding to deploy VISTA members nationally.

“There is a nutritional health crisis in Indian Country, and its leading cause is the lack of access to healthy, affordable food,” said Community Chairman Charles R. Vig. “This partnership offers a new model to address food access problems at the tribal level. Our tribe is excited to support the work of AmeriCorps VISTA and the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative to recruit and place teams of volunteers with the training, creativity, commitment, and strong work ethic needed to assist tribes achieve better food access.”

AmeriCorps VISTA, operated by the Corporation for National and Community Service, is the national service program established specifically to help alleviate poverty. Founded as Volunteers in Service to America in 1965 as the domestic version of the Peace Corps, VISTA taps the skills, talents and passion of more than 8,000 Americans annually to build the capacity of nonprofit organizations or local government agencies to carry out programs that tackle poverty.

“We are so proud to support this culturally competent and innovative approach to addressing specific tribal community needs, by harnessing the organizational support available through our partner, the University of Arkansas’ Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative and the generosity of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community,” said former AmeriCorps VISTA Director Max Finberg.

The initiative will recruit, train, deploy and supervise the work of these VISTA volunteers. Created by School of Law Dean Stacy Leeds and directed by Hipp, the initiative focuses on multidisciplinary research, service and education in support of native communities. Its work encompasses tribal food code development, feeding program analysis, national food systems scans and other food sovereignty related projects. The initiative also hosts the Native Youth in Food and Agriculture Leadership Summit, a 10-day educational event for at least 100 native youth to build their skills in food systems development and learn how food and agriculture policy impacts their tribal communities.

“Tribes across the country are struggling to access healthy food and develop sustainable food systems,” Leeds said. “The Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community has been a longstanding leader in support of tribal sovereignty and now is the national leader working on improving native nutritional health. Their support of AmeriCorps VISTA is critical to tackling hunger and food insecurity and building strong native food systems in Indian Country. This new effort will take these commitments one step further and support the deployment of VISTA recruits within tribal communities to gain on-the-ground experience and assist tribes in their work toward healthy food access.” 

For more information about this or other initiative programs, please contact director Janie Simms Hipp at jhipp@uark.edu.

About the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative: The initiative enhances health and wellness in tribal communities by advancing healthy food systems, diversified economic development and cultural food traditions in Indian Country. The initiative empowers tribal governments, farmers, ranchers and food businesses by providing strategic planning and technical assistance; by creating new academic and professional education programs in food systems and agriculture; and by increasing student enrollment in land grant universities in food and agricultural related disciplines.

About AmeriCorps VISTA: AmeriCorps VISTA is a program of the Corporation for National and Community Service, a federal agency that engages millions of Americans in service through its AmeriCorps, Senior Corps, and other programs, and leads volunteer initiatives for the nation. Since 1965, AmeriCorps VISTA has been at the forefront of helping communities across America alleviate poverty. Each year, more than 8,000 AmeriCorps VISTA members serve in 3,000 locations across the country, supporting programs that reduce homelessness, improve health services, expand job opportunities, develop financial assets, grow access to affordable food and housing, and expand access to technology for those living in rural and urban areas of poverty across America.

About the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community: The Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community is a federally recognized, sovereign Indian tribe located southwest of Minneapolis/St. Paul. Making its top priority to be a good neighbor, the SMSC is one of the top 10 philanthropists in Minnesota and donates more to charity than any other Indian tribe in America. It also focuses on being a strong community partner and a leader in protecting and restoring natural resources.

About Seeds of Native Health: Seeds of Native Health is the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community’s philanthropic campaign to improve Native American nutrition. Launched in 2015, the $5 million campaign has provided grants to local communities and funded research, education, and capacity-building efforts. Partners include the American Heart Association, First Nations Development Institute, MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, the Notah Begay III Foundation, the University of Arkansas School of Law’s Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative, and the University of Minnesota. More information is available at SeedsofNativeHealth.org.

About University of Arkansas School of Law: The University of Arkansas School of Law prepares students for success through a challenging curriculum taught by nationally recognized faculty, unique service opportunities and a close-knit community that puts students first. With alumni in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, two territories and 20 countries, it has been ranked among the top 10 “Values in Legal Education” by the National Jurist magazine for four consecutive years and is among the top 46 public law schools, according to U.S. News and World Report.

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