Gardens are helping North Carolina Cherokee build better, healthier families

by Michael Smith (Veshengro)

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, now numbering about 15,000, has made its home in the North Carolina mountains for more than 11,000 years. And during that time, their tribal culture has centered on the Earth, especially agriculture. Cultivating plants to produce food has been a mainstay of Cherokee existence.

Recently, along with the rest of society, the Cherokee people have suffered from the excesses of modern living. Fast food, poor eating habits and lack of exercise have lead to obesity and an increased incidence of diabetes in their children and adults. And as in many communities, their tribe has seen the effects of the deterioration of the family unit, as well as growing drug, alcohol and other substance abuse issues and a breakdown in the tribe's social structure that can lead to domestic violence.

The Band has confronted these problems head-on, with expanded health care and education, improved public safety programs and a new, consolidated tribal-run social services system. While they were making a difference with these initiatives, they knew that to be successful they needed to deal with the root causes of these problems. And so they did.

In the end, it all came down to simply planting a garden. Not just any garden, but one that could be tended by a family, that produced nutritious natural foodstuffs and that brought families back together around the dinner table.

Eleven years ago, they started a program that consisted of distributing free garden kits each spring to tribal families. It started small. But today, they are giving out 750 garden kits each year, each capable of producing fruits and vegetables worth $600.

The garden project contributes nearly half a million dollars in nutritious foods to Cherokee families each year. Since the program began, close to 6,000 garden kits have been distributed, providing more than $3 million in healthy food for tribal members.

Each kit contains a mix of heritage vegetables and local favorites, including creasy greens, hominy corn and Indian beans, yellow squash, cucumbers, Sugar Ann pea, boc choi and spaghetti squash. Furthermore there is also a Saskatoon Serviceberry seedling that can grow to 10 feet tall and produce dark, purple berries and also a booklet detailing how to sow, care for and harvest the produce, along with a nutrition guide.

And those kits also contain the seeds of better health, for as adults and children go about the daily activity of planting, caring for and harvesting from their home garden throughout the year, they enjoy much-needed outdoor exercise.

Instead of eating fast food, more families are gathering around the dinner table enjoying what they have grown together. This is important for two reasons. First, it means that meals are more nutritious and healthier and, second, it reinstates the all important evening family gathering which has sometimes been lost in a world of television and computer games.

I believe that we can all learn from the experience of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and take a leaf out of their book for all of us wherever we happen to live, whether in the USA or in Europe or elsewhere.

© 2014