On “Food Talk with Dani Nierenberg,” Kathleen Merrigan, inaugural Executive Director of the Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems at Arizona State University (ASU), talks about learning from the wisdom of Indigenous foodways. “I’m looking forward, but at the same time, I’m looking back. I realize that there’s this wisdom in Indigenous food systems that we’ve just not given prime time,” says Merrigan.
“Conversations about Indigenous food systems frequently feature rampant poverty, obesity, Indian reservations, and lack of food access. While that is all true, those conversations overshadow the real incredible success stories,” says Merrigan. In partnership with the Swette Center, Food Tank will host the summit “The Wisdom of Indigenous Foodways” to confront a past that has excluded indigenous agricultural practices, ingredients, and voices from the food system. And the Summit will highlight a hopeful future featuring activists, entrepreneurs, and innovators from native communities. “This summit is really about elevating that story and figuring out what we can all learn from them,” says Merrigan. A livestream of the summit will be available at Foodtank.com.
Merrigan notes that being at ASU offers a unique opportunity to engage in the topic of indigenous foodways, as she has learned since arriving earlier this year. “Over 27 percent of land in Arizona is tribal land, and this county—Maricopa county— has the largest number by percentage of Native Americans of any county in the country,” says Merrigan. “So, as I seek to learn about my new homestead, I also want to learn a lot about my neighbors.”
As the former U.S. Deputy Secretary at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Merrigan reflects on the lack of diversity in decision-making spheres for agriculture nationwide, in which she was often the only woman in the room. Merrigan notes that this diversity problem includes not only gender but also race—and especially impacts the representation of Native communities.
“Diversity is lacking in a lot of our food system work. If we’re going to change the way we do food in this country, we need to change the faces around the decision-makers so that they reflect the real demographics of this country,” says Merrigan. “So when we have our summit, we’re going to hear from a lot of people who are always at that table, and should be, because they’re innovators: they’re people who understand resilience over thousands of years in their cultures. There’s a lot to learn.”