Health & Education

Preschool adds traditional foods to its menu

05.16.2024 Danielle Harrison Culture, Education
Maddilynn Phillips-Dill, 2, takes a bite of elk minestrone soup during lunch in the ShwiqHiq classroom at the Tribe’s Early Childhood Education building on Wednesday, April 24. ECE staff has been working to incorporate the Tribe’s traditional foods into the school’s menu. This was the first time elk was included in the lunch menu. (Photos by Michelle Alaimo)


By Danielle Harrison

Smoke Signals editor

Students in the Grand Ronde Headstart Preschool Program recently had the opportunity to sample a traditional food staple —elk.

The verdict seemed mixed, with some students noshing away happily and others with hesitation. However, given the age group, that’s a fairly normal occurrence for any new food.

Efforts to incorporate traditional foods into the school lunch menu has long been a goal for the program, but there were several bureaucratic hurdles to clear first.

“The preschool has been working to incorporate traditional foods in our school menus,” Health & Nutrition Coordinator Shelley Clift said. “A large portion of the food we serve our students is funded by the USDA Food and Nutrition Service through the Child and Adult Care Food Program. This program supports high nutrition standards for our students. However, there were several barriers to serving traditional foods.”

The primary issue was that many traditional foods were not included on the program’s reimbursable list. Additionally, sourcing traditional foods can be expensive and difficult, and hunter-harvested meats are not allowed in most situations.

“Fortunately, we were able to move through these challenges,” Clift said. “A lot of work has been done in the last year at many levels.”

In March 2023, Grand Ronde’s preschool nutrition team met with representatives from Oregon’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and USDA, where they discussed barriers to serving traditional foods and requested some flexibilities.

During the summer and fall, the nutrition team coordinated with the Tribe’s Native Plant Nursery to begin receiving traditional foods such as berries and planters of narrow leaf onion.

USDA also released a memo during that time, emphasizing a commitment to, “support Tribal nations self-determination, promote equity, remove barriers to services and programs, and incorporate Native American perspectives into food programs, recognizing their food sovereignty.”

In February, Natural Resources identified local custom meat processors used by the Tribe and discussed the possibility of a ceremonial hunt. By April, inspection reports arrived from the Oregon Department of Agriculture for custom meat processors used by Grand Ronde Natural Resources and Tribal Police Department.

Additionally, Clift and Tribal Council Vice Chair Chris Mercier attended a virtual meeting with state and national USDA and Child Nutrition Program representatives to discuss next steps. 

Lastly, Nutrition Services Supervisor Jose Montano coordinated with Tribal Police to receive 20 pounds of elk meat for the preschool freezer.

On Wednesday, April 24, elk minestrone soup was served to all preschoolers.

Tribal General Manager Angie Blackwell was the longtime manager of Early Childhood Education and said it had been a longtime goal to serve Indigenous foods in the classrooms.  

“There were bureaucratic barriers that had to be addressed,” she said. “Shelley Clift invested a great deal of time and energy to see this come to fruition.”

Education Department Manager Angela Fasana expressed similar sentiments.

“I am so happy to hear this,” she said. “I appreciate each of you and your contribution to making this happen.”