‘A sanctuary’: how neglected Native American communities are organizing their own food hubs

<span>The Hopi Tutskwa Permaculture Institute in Arizona received a $250,000 grant from the US agriculture department to expand their food hub.</span><span>Photograph: Courtesy Lilian Hill</span>
The Hopi Tutskwa Permaculture Institute in Arizona received a $250,000 grant from the US agriculture department to expand their food hub.Photograph: Courtesy Lilian Hill

On the Hopi reservation in the high desert of northern Arizona, construction is underway.

A dilapidated auto garage is being converted into a fully-equipped kitchen, food storage areas, dining room and an attached greenhouse. The new facilities will become the first-ever Hopi-region food hub, used to increase Indigenous access to fresh, healthy and affordable food through farm shares, farmer’s markets, agricultural workshops, seed sharing, cooking lessons and other programs.

Food hubs – community-run, centralized locations to produce, store and distribute food – are part of an emerging, Native-led movement to address the longstanding food crisis among Indigenous communities in the US: a lack of fresh produce and a decline in traditional farming stemming from centuries of colonization, land loss, theft and displacement.

It’s a strategy that advocates say is becoming increasingly common across the US south-west.

“We are building a network of farmers and producers to support the local food economy and address our people’s needs,” said Lilian Hill, who, along with her husband, Jacobo Marcus, started the nonprofit Hopi Tutskwa Permaculture Institute. Over the past 20 years, the institute has worked to rebuild food security in the Hopi Nation, establishing relationships with nearly 100 regional food producers. Last year, it received a $250,000 grant from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to expand and build the Hopi food hub, which is set to open in November.

While the grant is welcome, it does not come close to meeting the community’s needs, Hill and Marcus say. The federal government has long failed to support and fund Native agriculture and food systems across the country, resulting in widespread food insecurity and adverse health outcomes.

So, many communities are organizing food hubs on their own.

“Food hubs are about building resilient communities,” said Bleu Adams, a chef and the founder of IndigeHub, a nonprofit that helps build food hubs in Navajo Nation. “We’re isolated and left to fill in the gaps.”


While the idea of a food hub isn’t new, and isn’t exclusive to Indigenous communities, the concept has taken off in recent decades as a way to push back against the industrial globalized food system. Reminiscent of traditional food systems, including Indigenous systems of agriculture and trade, food hubs have become a way to rebuild regional food economies.

Hill explains that in Hopi culture, all homes are considered food hubs in a way, since they traditionally have food storage that’s managed by clan mothers. “Although the western idea of the ‘food hub’ is not Hopi, we still identify it as being generated by the community and as a sanctuary that will nourish our community,” she said.

In the US, roughly one in four Native Americans are food insecure, nearly triple the rate of their white counterparts. The disparity is even worse on reservations, which have high rates of poverty and unemployment, as well as inadequate infrastructure and food access. The entire 6,475 sq km (2,500 sq mile) Hopi reservation, for instance, which is larger than the entire state of Delaware, only has four small grocery stores, which means that most residents rely on food outside the reservation, driving several hours just to shop.

Lack of access to fresh, healthy food has led to widespread nutrition-related diseases in tribal communities. “If we don’t have access to our food, we don’t have access to nutrition,” said Adams, who is Mandan, Hidatsa and Dine’ (Navajo). “If you want to understand what happens to a community when you exclude them from healthy and nutritious food, look at Indigenous communities.”

In 2022, the US Department of the Interior launched the Indigenous Food Hub initiative to “help repair the damage done to Indigenous foodways by the harmful policies of the past, including colonization, relocation and assimilation,” Bryan Newland, assistant secretary for Indian Affairs, said in a 2022 press release. The Bureau of Indian Affairs and Bureau of Indian Education have been tasked with creating food hubs alongside its schools and other institutions, although none have opened yet.

“I think it’s a good start,” said Adams.

Janie Hipp, the first Native American woman to serve as general counsel of the USDA, said the government has never adequately funded programs to support tribal food and agriculture.

“We would love to say that the Department of Interior or USDA should have been doing this work all along,” said Hipp, who now serves as president and CEO of Native Agriculture Financial Services, which provides capital for Native American farmers and ranchers. “Moving forward, we need a sustained effort in Congress to adequately fund an array of programs.”


Adams, meanwhile, started working on food hubs amid the pandemic. She had been working on a new restaurant when Covid-19 hit the US; she then pivoted, transforming the restaurant into a shipping and receiving center for the Covid relief organization Protect Native Elders.

Her experience during the pandemic, including the death of her brother, chef Mark Daniel Mason, who she opened her first restaurant with, inspired the creation of IndigeHub, which operates co-working, kitchen and food hubs to help build self-sufficiency and sustainability in Indigenous communities. The first food hub at Dragonfly Farms on the Navajo Nation will include a solar-powered shipping container and a central place for producing, storing, and distributing food through a network of farmers.

Given adequate funding, she hopes IndigeHub can build a network of food hubs across the Navajo Nation.

In addition to the Navajo Nation, grassroots food hubs are also emerging in places like Arizona. The Star School, serving primarily Native American students near Flagstaff, is developing a food hub with a local food store and growing produce in a greenhouse and garden. Further to the south-west, the Nalwoodi Denzhone Community nonprofit operates a food pantry, a local food store, a community kitchen, and a regenerative farm and mobile chicken tractor on the San Carlos Apache Reservation.

“If we can build these hubs, we can fill those gaps in the food system,” said Adams.

Hill agreed, saying the food hub model is a step toward food security and food sovereignty long denied to Hopi people. “If we don’t have access to and control over the food system, our seeds, and food production,” she said, “we become extremely vulnerable”.