How Colorado’s Southern Ute Community Is Working to Ensure Access to Healthy Foods

The long history of the Southern Ute people of southwest Colorado is marked by perseverance and the ability to adapt in the face of adversity. From being the first tribe to use horses to creating a bevy of nutrition, health and agricultural programs today, they continually strive to strengthen and sustain their community.

“The opportunity for tribal members to succeed in the production of agriculture is vast,” says Kevin Mallow, Southern Ute agricultural division head.

Living in a food desert and a region prone to drought, the Southern Ute Tribe has gotten creative with making sure its community has access to nutritious foods. The Food Distribution Program serves low-income community household members, and like the rest of the country, they’ve seen an increase in food insecurity. Through this program, participants have access to USDA nonperishable, frozen meats and fresh produce.

Education and Conservation

The Tribe also empowers its members by educating them. The Tribal Health Department, Boys & Girls Club and Southern Ute Indian Montessori Academy lead classes on healthy eating habits, and members can access health screenings and education through the Tribal Health Department and SunUte Community Center. The Tribe also has a small bison herd (harvested on a limited basis), and the Culture Preservation Department educates the public about traditional foods, including gathering and preservation practices.

When it comes to water conservation and rights, the Tribe has taken matters into its own hands in upgrading its archaic irrigation systems. Decreased funding for the Bureau of Indian Affairs has limited the bureau’s ability to carry out the trust responsibility of the federal government. The Tribe also finds ways to forecast and measure droughts and other environmental events. The Tribe’s Water Use Options Team has helped develop unused water rights.

“The tribe has vast underutilized agricultural land,” says the Tribe spokesperson. “Couple that with the fact that we have also underutilized, senior water rights and we are in a prime position to pivot our agricultural strategy to something with greater benefit to the tribal membership as a whole.”

Modernization

However, like other rural areas, there’s been a reduction in interest in agrarian living – especially among the youth. To promote farming and provide support, the Southern Ute is implementing modern farming practices, such as using hemp as a hay alternative, greenhouses and investigating the start of a co-op to strengthen purchasing power. The Agriculture Department helps with weed and rodent management, soil analysis, and tasks like welding, fencing and spraying. In the fall, they host a produce sale where farm equipment is rented out.

Historically, the tribe was nomadic, migrating each season while hunting game and harvesting and sharing vegetables, nuts and berries. However, in 1887, the Dawes Allotment Act forced tribal nations to adapt homesteading and farming practices in the style of white settlers. Not only was this a change of lifestyle, but it also abruptly changed the tribe’s diet. This is why the Food Distribution Program and other cultural initiatives are so important.

“The Ute people view everything as interconnected,” the Tribe spokesperson says. “Everything has life and everything should be respected for what it brings to the world and to the Ute people.”

Originally published in Cultivating Colorado.

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