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, our 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 our children and adults. And as in many communities, our tribe has seen the effects of the deterioration of the family unit, as well as growing substance abuse issues and a breakdown in our social structure that can lead to domestic violence.
We have 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 we are making a difference with these initiatives, we knew that to be successful we needed to deal with the root causes of these problems.
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, we started a program that consisted of distributing free garden kits each spring to tribal families. It started small. But today, we 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. Theres also a Saskatoon Serviceberry seedling that can grow to 10 feet tall and produce dark, purple berries. Theres also a booklet detailing how to sow, care for and harvest the produce, along with a nutrition guide.
But these kits also contain the seeds of better health. 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 fast food, more of our families are gathering around the dinner table enjoying what theyve grown together. This is important for two reasons. First, it means that meals are more nutritious and healthful. But, second, it reinstates the all important evening family gathering which has sometimes been lost in a world of television and computer games.
A 2012 study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University reported that frequent family dinners make a big difference in a young persons life. The study showed reduced levels of stress among teens participating in frequent family dinners leading to reduced use of tobacco, alcohol, marijuana. Plus, these gatherings offer an opportunity for parents to discuss family values and expectations with their children, further diminishing harmful habits.
Finally, our home garden program serves another important purpose. Consistent with our focus in recent years on returning to many of the values found at the core of our Cherokee culture, turning to the earth to produce the foods we consume is very much in line with our effort to rediscover and promote our tribal heritage, especially to our young people. That is why we include traditional Cherokee staples in our garden kit and encourage family members, from the very old to the very young, to make gardening a intergenerational activity.
We are, of course, not alone in this effort. The garden to table movement is sweeping across America. Fast food chains are turning to more nutritious menus. Two years ago, first lady Michelle OBama launched a national Lets Move! initiative that emphasizes home gardens, activity and good nutrition gained from consuming fresh fruits and vegetables grown at home.
As our home garden project in Cherokee enters its second decade, we know it is making a difference. We know it works, and it grows larger each year. We urge other communities in our state, and even state government, to consider adopting similar programs. Your kids future may depend on it.
Michell Hicks is the principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.