Agriculture is vital to any economy, and Cherokee Nation’s is no exception. Likewise, agribusinesses, or economic activity in the agriculture arena, are essential in meeting the basic healthy food needs for Cherokee people. Food security is always an issue for our citizenry and it has only been magnified during the COVID-19 crisis, which has hit northeast Oklahomans hard.
Early on during the pandemic, the Cherokee Nation launched an elder emergency food distribution program so Cherokee elders could shelter in place and stay safe without worrying about access to food. Under this program, Cherokee Nation has distributed more than 30,000 boxes with enough food to provide almost 6 million meals. Additionally, we served more than 28,000 ready-made meals after many senior nutrition sites were temporarily closed.
In taking on this challenge, we found that dry goods, canned goods and produce were easy to come by, but getting enough protein from markets across the country proved difficult and costly. To break down these barriers, we will be taking on a more direct role in food production. Cherokee Nation is repurposing one of our properties in Tahlequah – a 12,000-square-foot building off Highway 51 that once housed a horticultural nursery -- to construct a new meat processing facility.
The facility will grow in phases, first serving Cherokees who need help getting enough healthy food and then potentially expanding into the larger commercial marketplace. We are moving quickly, but carefully, so we can use federal Coronavirus Relief Funds for a portion of the capital costs.
In due time, the facility will help expand our region’s agriculture business sector. It will be ready for processing beef, bison and pork in the near future, and potentially venison down the road. We’ll be able to get food directly to our citizens and provide our tribal nutrition centers with fresh locally sourced protein. We’ll be able to supplement the Cherokee Nation’s traditional food distribution program, as well as the COVID-related emergency food program, for elders and families in need.
The Deputy Chief and I, the administration’s cabinet, the Council of the Cherokee Nation, our emergency food program and our Natural Resources Department work every day to make sure Cherokee families can get enough healthy food. We believe it is a good and responsible government that invests to improve food production, processing and distribution.
Unfortunately, one in six Oklahomans still struggle with hunger, and one in four are food insecure, which means they lack consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members. We know those numbers are even higher for Native households. National estimates predict that food insecurity will climb for the rest of this year and early 2021 due to spikes in poverty and unemployment related to the pandemic.
This idea of a Cherokee Nation meat processing facility had been discussed for several years, and we saw the potential in helping Cherokee farmers and ranchers by purchasing quality livestock and processing it for our people. We can also provide this service to Cherokees who pay to have their livestock processed.
Eventually, we will use surplus animals from the tribe’s bison herd, which was established in 2014, to provide meals for Cherokees. That was always one of the goals with the bison operation once it reached sustainability – that we could establish a local farm-to-table operation for lean bison meat.
The meat processing plant will fulfill important needs for the Cherokee people. I’m excited to see it come to fruition, and I’m proud to be a part of the Cherokee Nation continuing to find innovative ways to serve our citizens.
Chuck Hoskin Jr.