The Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community's new health food store in Prior Lake resembles most any natural food store in the cities -- misters spraying mounds of organic and local produce, grass-fed beef in the refrigerated aisle, a line of gluten-free baked goods, a counter with samples of strawberry smoothies.
But Mazopiya (accent on the "o"), which means "a place to store things" in Dakota, might win when it comes to short farm-to-market distance. Much of the produce comes from a five-acre organic garden a few miles away, maple syrup is tapped from reservation trees and honey comes from reservation bees. Also, stocked alongside stacks of kale and pyramids of tomatoes are native products -- buffalo and cranberry bars, Lakota popcorn, beauty products made with buffalo tallow, sage, cedar and sweet grass.
Though she downplays her role, tribal member Lori Watso, who now works as Mazopiya's wellness department manager, served as the impetus for the store.
"I voiced it, but then it became everyone's idea," she said. "It really has been embraced."
After living in San Francisco, where she could buy fresh, local produce all year long, the former nurse and community health information specialist returned to the reservation intent on improving access to healthy food. "I realized that so many of the chronic health issues that tribal people deal with can be helped by clean food," she said. "People would start to feel better not only in physical ways but mentally, too."
Diabetes, for example, affects native people disproportionately. (According to statistics from the American Diabetes Association, rates are twice as high among Indians.) "They're eating a lot of highly processed and refined foods," she said.
Historically, after being placed on reservation land often unsuitable for farming, many native people started relying on food from government programs -- canned meat, white flour, white sugar, "a ton of commodity cheese," she said. And fry bread, she insisted, is not a native food but a reservation food.
"Native people weren't adapted to that kind of food. It's not good. It's not clean. It's not healthy. People eat like that, then they don't feel good, then they don't exercise, then they get heavy," she said. "Pretty soon, you have diabetes."
Though the area isn't officially designated a food desert by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Watso said tribal members tended to do what's easiest -- shop at the local convenience store. "Pretty soon, that becomes your food source," she said.
After planting the garden in April 2010, the tribe started renovating an empty building next to the South Metro Credit Union. They are in the process of applying for LEED certification for the building, which is lit by natural light from windows and a skylight, and that uses geothermal energy for heat and air conditioning.
After a soft opening in November, Watso said the store has since been working on connecting with the tribe and the general public through cooking and informational classes, tribal membership appreciation day and farmers markets in the parking lot. Tribal members get a discount (of an undisclosed amount), as do employees and members of the nearby fitness center (5 percent).
Also, the garden's CSA program (actually called TSA, tribal-supported agriculture) just opened up to the general public. Members can pick up boxes at the store and take classes in Mazopiya's new classroom on how to prepare items that are in their shares that week.
"We like the friendliness," said Hope Lindquist of Prior Lake, who shops at the store several times a week and whose husband likes to drop in for a bakery item and to chat. "He stops here every day."
Liz Rolfsmeier is a Minneapolis freelance writer.
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