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A Journey to Pine Ridge

Mary Burich | December 27, 2018


Hormel Foods and Justin’s team members nourished by trip to feed Oglala Lakota people

Team members from Hormel Foods and Justin’s recently took a break from their day jobs to give back to a community in South Dakota and to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Justin’s partnership with Conscious Alliance, a nonprofit organization committed to supporting communities in crisis through hunger relief and youth empowerment. A group of 16 – including representatives from Convoy of Hope, another community service partner of Hormel Foods –traveled to the Pine Ridge reservation to assemble 400 meal bags, stock food-pantry shelves and spend time with the Oglala Lakota people.

According to Conscious Alliance Executive Director Justin Levy, Pine Ridge is the third-largest reservation in the United States. It has roughly the land mass of Connecticut and is home to nearly 40,000 people. Yet, it has only one full-service grocery store, making it what he describes as “one of the largest food deserts in America.” In addition to food insecurity, those on the reservation suffer from extreme poverty, high unemployment and underemployment, and Type 2 diabetes that is several times the national average, among other challenges. At the same time, they are buoyed by a rich and long-standing culture steeped in spirituality and a connection to the land.

Justin Levy and his team are interested in ensuring the latter isn’t lost on them or on their volunteers. “We want to connect with the community, not just drop food and leave, he says.”

An Eye-Opening Experience

Katie Gabrielson, a member of the corporate communications department at Hormel Foods, is one who was surprised by her experience on the two-day trip. She traveled to Guatemala in early 2018 to help out with Project SPAMMY®, witnessing difficult circumstances firsthand. She expected things to be different in the far wealthier United States, especially “so close to home.”

“It’s very easy for people to take things for granted,” she says. “Just because you have what you need doesn’t mean your neighbors do.”

Katie’s observation is spot on, says Kelly Braaten, manager of external communications for Hormel Foods and an organizer of the recent Pine Ridge excursion.

“The tradition of employee engagement trips and activities is about fostering awareness and understanding, and getting important work done,” she says. “It strengthens our workforce by giving us a greater sense of diversity and inclusion, not to mention reminding everyone of the importance of helping communities. That’s as much a part of who we are as the products that bear our name.”

A Lasting Commitment

Natalie Hand has served as the liaison between Conscious Alliance and Pine Ridge for 16-plus years and now holds the title of field director for Conscious Alliance. As much as anyone, she remembers how the partnership with the organization came about.

A descendant of the Shawnee people, Natalie married Floyd, an Oglala Lakota, and moved to Pine Ridge from Minneapolis-St. Paul more than 20 years ago. Well-respected and filled with a sense of duty, the two began a grassroots hunger-relief operation on the reservation. Natalie’s ties to the Twin Cities allowed her to get turkeys and side dishes to Pine Ridge. “Friends would help us out. Sometimes people would leave groceries on our front porch,” she says.

As demand was growing for the services Natalie and Floyd were offering, Justin Baker, Conscious Alliance founder, came to the reservation on a discovery trip of sorts. Natalie remembers his dreadlocks as much as his interest in helping Indians on impoverished reservations. Floyd convinced Justin that he needed to look no further than Pine Ridge to find needs on par with a “third-world country.” Case in point: Studies report the reservation is the poorest county in the United States, with 97 percent of the population living far below the U.S. federal poverty line. In addition, the median household income on Pine Ridge ranges between $2,600 and $3,500 per year.

pine ridge

The team tours Pine Ridge School.

Justin Baker began bringing food up to Pine Ridge from his base in Boulder, Colo. Natalie volunteered her time to distribute it while raising her children and serving as a foster parent. She also continued to run the turkey-donation program that had grown to approximately 800 meals and a holiday toy drive that netted 1,000 wrapped gifts for kids. When Floyd became disabled, Natalie stepped in to help care for him, but she stayed in service through the hunger-relief efforts, her writing and her activism.

Today she manages Conscious Alliance’s Food Sovereignty and Youth Empowerment Center in the Lakeside community on the reservation. She understands well how critical it is to ensure that people have food, and she also recognizes the best answers to the problems of the reservation need to come from lasting social change that will allow true independence.

“We don’t need a handout,” Natalie says. “We just need the resources to become self-sufficient.”

Planting The Seeds Of Change

After the work at Loneman was finished, the team loaded the surplus bags onto the truck for delivery to another reservation school. Then came time for celebrating at a pow-wow that included a dance competition. The following morning was spent at the Lakeside center, stocking shelves, handing out groceries and enjoying a picnic lunch with those who came to get food for their families.

Dan Nelson was ready to greet the group at Pine Ridge School in the afternoon. He serves as the agency facility manager for the school and as the lead facilitator for the Conscious Alliance garden program. He spoke from the heart about the needs of young people and how something as simple as growing food can make a difference.

We’re planting seeds in the ground, but we’re also planting seeds in these kids’ minds, and we’re opening their minds.

Dan Nelson

“[It’s] been a conduit to bring help here for me and people like me to help ourselves,” he says. “We want ways to find our own solutions.”

So, when Dan got the idea of planting a garden and to work with the students to grow produce, Conscious Alliance was at the ready, securing raised-bed receptacles and other supplies. Already the project is bearing fruit, literally and in a much deeper sense.

“We’re planting seeds in the ground, but we’re also planting seeds in these kids’ minds, and we’re opening their minds,” he says.

It’s music to the ears of Justin Levy.

“That’s where lasting impact and lasting change happen,” he says.