Healthy Herd | MRE Innovations

innovation challenge
innovation challenge
NDSU | PHOTO COURTESY
Petra Reyna One Hawk is working on her Master’s in Public Health and
is competing in NDSU’s 2016 Innovation Challenge.

The feeling you get when you find your passion in life is exhilarating and validating. Choosing to act on that feeling can lead to making a difference. Petra Reyna One Hawk is one person making this profound choice.

Hawk is both Lakota and Dakota from Standing Rock reservation, which straddles the North Dakota and South Dakota border.

Hawk is currently working on her master’s in public health and is contemplating writing her thesis on improving access to healthy foods on the reservation. She has already completed a bachelor’s degree in biology and three years of medical school, all while raising a family.

Growing up on the reservation, Hawk was aware of the high statistics for diabetes and cardiovascular disease. While attending school and starting her family, she lived off the reservation for seventeen years.

“I completed three years of medical school, but I was frustrated because I didn’t feel like I was ever going to be a part of the solution seeing one patient at a time,” Hawk said. When she returned to the reservation to raise her family, she became very aware that it was a food desert.

According to the USDA, food deserts are parts of the country with a lack of access to healthful foods, usually because of a lack of grocery stores.

“I was spending so much time commuting 60 miles one way to a store just to get groceries,” Hawk notes. She knew that she wanted to do something about the problems of health and lack of grocery stores on the reservation.

Hawk found inspiration from her grandfather. He was firm in his traditions of preparing and caring for food. He also believed that it took input from the whole community to properly make the meals — the production of traditional Native American meals requires impressive amounts of knowledge of the growing seasons and plants.

Hawk developed a Meal Ready to Eat for NDSU’s Innovation challenge using traditional Native American ingredients like tìŋpsila, squash, corn and buffalo meat dried and prepared the traditional way. Waštúŋkala (wah-shtoo-kah-lah) is the name of the traditional stew meaning “dried corn stew”. The four main ingredients meet all of the macronutrient needs for a balance diet. The meals can be stored for long periods of time and rehydrated with a broth.

Hawk explained the significance of the ingredients in the traditional stew. The Lakota word tìŋpsila (teemp-see-lah) is for a plant not sold in grocery stores, or even domesticated. It’s only available three weeks out of the year. It isn’t exactly a veggie, fruit or starch, but can be thought of as a wild turnip and translated into “prairie rice.” It is a super food with each major nutrient in it — carbs, protein, fiber and even calcium.

“We saw the buffalo nation as relatives, they gave their lives so we could live — using buffalo meat in the stew is out of respect for this belief,” Hawk said.

The reason for implementing natural ingredients and preparation goes down to the micro level of nutrients being used in the body. By balancing the carbs in the meal with lean protein from buffalo meat and the nutrients of the other ingredients, a meal that lowers or maintains blood sugar can be created. This can be helpful in preventing diseases such as diabetes.

“If we utilize our traditional knowledge as an innovation, it can be part of the solution if given access,” says Hawk about her Innovation challenge idea. She would like to continue her research by implementing solution based research and recruiting those with already established health issues to see if her solutions can improve health.

There is proof that a healthy diet and exercise can prevent health problems from developing, but when you don’t have the resources close by, it’s impossible to prevent them. One of Hawk’s goals for the project was to simply make it known that we should be looking at what can be done to change the infrastructure of a reservation so it’s possible to prevent these issues from developing.

Hawk sees potential for the conservation of natural plants that the Lakota use to have benefits in the economy of the reservation by establishing a co-op that produces the MREs. With her venture, she hopes for the meals to be mass-produced and sold as a commodity to families on the reservation. One of her goals is also to establish a program where for each meal sold, another one is given to a family on the reservation. It could also be used to supplement programs that are already established for those in need, like programs for the elderly or pregnant women.

In return, the money from these meals can be used to help build up the infrastructure of the reservation. The project comes full-circle to address the needs of the reservation, to hopefully prevent health and economic problems before they happen. It will do this by paying the people for the products they harvest and by putting the money towards housing, eliminating food deserts by building grocery stores, creating jobs, and expanding health services.

“The key is recognizing an economy that exists already on the reservation that is not based on the American dollar,” she said. “If we do this we can foster this economy, which can fix a problem at its core and eliminate it.”

The process of drying the ingredients is a long one, and the once common traditional meals are now considered a delicacy. Because the ingredients for the stew have a limited amount of time to be harvested, each family in the tribe would harvest one crop for the stew and then barter with other families for the other ingredients in a community effort.

The cultural component of the stew was to teach the young people to acquire long-term planning. Hawk’s people were nomadic, but it did not mean that the Lakota “followed the buffalo” — it meant that they had to know the land.

Hawk’s idea for the MREs fits into this mentality. They are made with native ingredients and prepared in the traditional way to maintain the taste and texture of the traditional meal. Then they will be packaged so they can be quickly accessible for those who do not have the time and resources on the food desert of the reservation.

Though her ideas are perhaps bigger than can be contained in a life span, Hawk is content in knowing that they can be the start of a solution.

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