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The healing power of food

MPH student Jason Champagne believes that community cooking events, like this one on the White Mountain Apache reservation in eastern Arizona, will bring Native people together again. (Photo: Mike Henry)

Scholarship support allows public health student to reintroduce healthier foods into Native American culture

“Healing is the most important ingredient in Native American cooking,” says chef Jason Champagne, a member of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa and student in the School of Public Health who is pursuing a master’s degree in public health nutrition. “Indigenous foods are a path to health and a way for us to recover our communities.”

At age 7, Champagne taught himself to cook by watching TV chefs after school. By age 8, he would prepare a full dinner and set the table before his parents returned from work. After high school, Champagne started working in construction and saved enough money to go to Le Cordon Bleu culinary arts program in Minneapolis. He landed a plum job after graduation with Walt Disney World and was quickly promoted.

“But one night, after a successful 3,000-person steak and lobster dinner, I realized I’d had enough,” Champagne says. “My work was focused on quantity and production, and I realized I’d lost sight of why I’d entered a culinary career — to cook and connect with people. So I decided to finish my education and work in a field where I could do both.”

Champagne was awarded a scholarship to the University of North Dakota and graduated with a degree in nutrition and Native American studies.

“Throughout the research I did for my nutrition degree, I kept coming across papers authored by Dr. Mary Story [professor and senior associate dean at the School of Public health] and was captivated by her work in obesity and diabetes,” he says. “So I emailed her, and she encouraged me to apply for an MPH.”

Champagne began his MPH studies at the School of Public Health in fall 2011 as a Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community (SMSC) Scholar. By November 2012, he was presenting at the Native American Culinary Association Indigenous Food Culture Conference.

“Five-hundred years ago, we Natives were expert farmers, hunters, gatherers, fishermen, and cooks,” Champagne says. “These activities will make us healthy again.”

Champagne spent last summer heading the cooking program and working with youth at Dream of Wild Health, a 10-acre, Native-owned organic farm in Hugo, Minn.

And now, after being supported as a Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Scholar for two years, he has accepted a chef/nutritionist consulting position with the SMSC.

“The Shakopee tribe has invested in me, and it is now my goal to invest [in] their community,” says Champagne.

He also plans to consult with other Native programs throughout the community via his business, Native Chef LLC. “My passion is helping other American Indians understand the basics of culinary arts, incorporating basic strategies to improve the overall nutrient content of foods, and incorporating traditional foods into contemporary food styles,” he says.

As part of that mission, Champagne hopes to travel to both urban and rural locations to teach American Indian kids how to cook and hold community cooking events to bring people together.

“I hope that traditional foods will become the everyday foods for Native Americans,” Champagne says. “I dream of having a traditional Native American food truck that serves our ancestors’ food, not the fry-bread and tacos at today’s powwows. Why not serve rack bread — a flat bread cooked over an open fire — bison burgers, wild rice, fresh fried fish? Real foods. Real fun.”

Adapted with permission from the spring 2013 issue of Advances, published by the School of Public Health, University of Minnesota.

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