The poorest, most at-risk communities are always the ones that suffer the most in a crisis like this one. In the United States, that often means Indigenous people. The hundreds of Indian Nations across the U.S. are some of the most resource-deprived, food insecure, and medically isolated communities in the country. With government funding for these communities falling short in the best of times, it’s no shock that people on reservations are in desperate need right now.
Enter chef Brian Yazzie. Chef Yazzie — who’s from Navajo Nation but calls Minneapolis-St. Paul home — decided to spend his time during the lockdown feeding at-risk and quarantined Indigenous elders in his community. He teamed up with the Minneapolis American Indian Center, which is closed due to the virus but offered him a professional kitchen and stocked pantry. As the pandemic has progressed, Yazzie and a team of chefs, cooks, and drivers have been making hundreds of meals for their elders and delivering them, free of charge.
We caught up with Yazzie — one of our favorite chefs and a Travel Hot List contributor — to talk about what motivated him to take up his chef’s knife to feed Indigenous elders and how you can help keep the food flowing.
So I have been following you on Instagram and you’re doing a lot of cooking right now. You’re volunteering and feeding people in need. Can you walk us through how you started cooking at the American Indian Center?
I’ve been in self-isolation or self-quarantine about two weeks, and after two weeks of not having any type of symptoms, the first thing that came to mind as a chef was our elders, especially in the Native communities. I thought about the Twin Cities area, because I’ve seen a lot of well-known chefs here who are helping everyone in general. They’re setting up their restaurants or their food trucks and making meals so their food doesn’t go to waste.
I did notice while looking through all the media and the stuff they’re doing that there were no specific connections to the Native communities. So as being a servant to the community myself, I felt like I should use my platform and do something.
How did you get this ball rolling?
Instead of being home and not being able to do anything, I felt like I should jump into the community and helping where I can. So I made a couple of phone calls the Sunday before last. I connected with a chef friend of mine who’s the executive chef at Gatherings Café, which is inside the Minneapolis American Indian Center. His name is Ben Shendo. He’s Pueblo from New Mexico. I connected with him and I asked if their café was still open and if they’re doing anything to feed the community because I know right now sales are down for restaurants and cafés. Or non-existent. And we both believe that no food should go to waste. From there, he redirected me to Mary Lagarde, who is the Minneapolis American Indian Center’s director.
Lagarde informed me that Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota provided her with a grant to help start up a project to start feeding the elderly in South Minneapolis. And she was just looking for someone to lead the Gatherings Café staff to start this project up as soon as possible and start feeding the community.
How long did it take to get your first meals out?
This call was last Sunday, and we had a meeting the following day. We had a meeting in person, so I ran through the logistics with them of what amount of grant they had, the volunteers and the staff we picked. And then the following day, on Tuesday, is when we jumped into action and started cooking. The first thing we did is utilize all the ingredients within the Gatherings Café’s inventory before anything went to waste.
And during that time last week, I started reaching out to people through social media, asking for donations or funds. The response was overwhelming. I have a chef friend named Patrick McDonald. He made a couple of calls and he was able to connect me with Idaho Potato Company and a lot of other companies who have food and are able to provide.
Also, a lot of individuals started donating funds. Today, we just received a delivery from Twin Cities Food Justice, a nonprofit organization that is focusing on not just food justice, but trying to ensure that no food goes to waste. They donated a good amount of produce and bread as well.
So walk me through your day. How are you meal planning? How are you executing? Is it tough keeping people safe?
For sure. The first thing we do when we come in is we make sure the core group of volunteers doesn’t have any symptoms at all. We have a temperature gauge and we check the people coming in and we have face masks and gloves that are being donated daily by local community members. We make sure to check everyone before we start cutting up the food.
The next thing we do is have a small meeting to bring everyone up to date. Then we look at the inventory that we have, because right now we don’t have a set menu. We have different ingredients coming in daily. So we can’t sit down and create a menu. We look at the ingredients that we have and we start creating the menu from there. Then we all spread out in the kitchen with each of us focusing on their station like making bread or making salads or on the flat top cooking up or chopping up meat.
How are you getting these meals to the people who need them?
We have two drop off locations in South Minneapolis. One is at a little apartment complex in South Minneapolis that’s specifically reserved for the Indigenous community. And the second is a public location where elders can go to pick up their food from 11:30 and 12:30. So around 10:30 is when we start packaging the food in to-go containers. We have two volunteer drivers who pull up to the side of the door. They’re not allowed to come into the building for safety reasons. So we walk the boxes in their trucks.
I don’t want to get into politics of why this is even necessary, but how long do you feel like this is going to be necessary and how worried are you that the money or the food might stop coming in?
Yeah, so the grant provided by Blue Cross Blue Shield Minnesota is supposed to cover us for four to five weeks. In reality, I’d say it’s enough to cover us for three to four weeks. But donations are coming in, so that will definitely extend our ability to cook and deliver food.
What is the best way to support you guys right now?
I wouldn’t recommend people sending canned food, frozen, or heavy bulk food, especially if they’re out of state. But if they do have dried ingredients as in corn, beans, squash, or dried spices or salt, that can be mailed in or delivered. Our drop off point right now is at the Minneapolis American Indian Center.
We’re also receiving funds that we can use once or twice a week to go to the local co-op or reach out to the local Native vendors and purchase from those individuals before we go out to chain markets like Target or Walmart. We’re still trying to keep in balance with the community and the Native food vendors.
You want to make sure that people are able to sustain themselves to make the food in the first place and then pass it on to people who need the food.
I kind of feel like, I don’t mean this glibly, but you’re sort of on the front line feeding people who are in need of meals. What are you seeing out there? Do you have a sense of calm that people are getting fed, or is it sort of giving you a sense of worry that things are getting worse?
I have a sense that this is still building up in a negative way. Our Minnesota governor, Tim Walz, in his daily briefing he expressed that — with statistics from the University of Minnesota Health Department — about 80 percent of Minnesotans will be affected by the coronavirus before it flattens the curve unless people self-quarantine and stay home. So I definitely believe this is just the beginning. It’s definitely overwhelming, but I believe it is just the beginning.
It’s tough out there. Do you think this is bringing awareness to the food insecurity in Indian Country? I mean, my rez out in Washington doesn’t even have a grocery store, only a gas station “food mart.” They have to drive 20 minutes on a good day to get to a grocery store.
I feel like there is an awareness that there is a need for what we’re doing. It’s definitely all positive from what I have been seeing up here in Minnesota.
Have you heard from your family back in Navajo? How are they holding up?
It’s something very different on my reservation right now. In the matter of, I believe, a week and a half since the first positive testing, there are 105 cases on my reservation now. And, you know, we’re the largest tribe in the U.S. So they’re doing what they can with the task force. They’re having people stay at home. But you have to realize then that home falls in third world poverty status where the nearest grocery store or gas station is about 45 minutes to an hour away for most folks. A lot of elders are living in the backcountry — where over half of them don’t even have running water or electricity. They need community members to help elders daily. And, you know, they’re putting their lives on the line to do that.