Indigenous foods tougher to find in Chicago and elsewhere with food prices soaring

Traditional Native American foods often aren’t available or are too expensive for Native families. And inflation has propelled these foods even further out of reach.

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Jessica Pamonicutt, executive chef of a Native American catering company in Chicago, displays a contemporary indigenous meal she cooked at the American Indian Center of Chicago.

Jessica Pamonicutt, executive chef of a Native American catering company in Chicago, displays a contemporary indigenous meal she cooked at the American Indian Center of Chicago.

Claire Savage / AP

Blueberry bison tamales, harvest salad with mixed greens, creamy carrot and wild rice soup, roasted turkey with squash.

This contemporary Native American meal, crafted in Chicago from traditional foods of tribes across the United States — cost caterer Jessica Pamonicutt $976 to feed a group of 50 people last November. Today, it costs her nearly double.

Pamonicutt is executive chef of Ketapanen Kitchen, a Native American catering business in Chicago. A citizen of the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin, she was raised in Chicago, which is home to one of the largest urban Native populations in the country, according to the American Indian Center of Chicago.

She aims to offer health-conscious meals featuring Indigenous ingredients to the Chicago Native community and also to educate people about Indigenous contributions to everyday American fare.

Pamonicutt says she hopes one day to be able to buy all of her ingredients from Native suppliers and to provide her community with affordable access to healthy Indigenous foods, “but this whole inflation thing has slowed that down.”

Inflation surged to a new four-decade U.S. high in June, with painfully high prices for gas, food and rent.

Traditional Indigenous foods — items in the Midwest such as wild rice, bison, fresh vegetables and fruits — often aren’t available or are too expensive for Native families in Chicago and other cities. And inflation has propelled these foods even further out of reach.

Pamonicutt is feeling the pinch. Between last winter and this spring, the price of bison jumped from $13.99 to $23.99 a pound. The chef, who’s 45, says that, with high shipping costs, it’s often cheaper to drive hundreds of miles to buy ingredients, even with the high price of gasoline. She’s had to develop some of her own suppliers: Her parents are growing crops for her business on their Wisconsin property near the state line.

Gina Roxas, who’s program coordinator at the Trickster Cultural Center in Schaumburg, also has agreed to grow Native foods to help Pamonicutt hold down costs.

When a bag of wild rice costs $20, “You end up going to a fast-food place instead to feed your family,” Roxas says.

Volunteers at the American Indian Center of Chicago help chef Jessica Pamonicutt, second from left, prepare a contemporary Indigenous meal for seniors on Aug. 3, 2022. A fusion of Southwestern and Northern Indigenous ingredients, the spread includes turkey tamales with cranberry-infused masa, Spanish rice with quinoa, elote pasta salad with chickpea noodles and glasses of cold lemonade.

Volunteers at the American Indian Center of Chicago help chef Jessica Pamonicutt (second from left) prepare a contemporary Indigenous meal for seniors.

AP

Dorene Wiese, executive director of the American Indian Association of Illinois, says members of her community often must decide it’s more important to pay their rent than to spend more on healthy, traditional foods.

Though Pamonicutt aims to feed her own community, the cost of her premium catering service is out of range for many urban Natives. So her meals often end up feeding majority non-Native audiences at museums or cultural events that can foot the bill, according to Wiese, a citizen of the Minnesota White Earth Band of Ojibwe Indians.

Inflation also is hurting the American Indian Center of Chicago’s efforts to improve food security. Melodi Serna, the center’s executive director, says the price of food boxes it distributes — including traditional Midwestern foods like fish, bison, venison, dairy products and produce — has become “astronomical.”

“Where I could have been able to provide maybe 100 boxes, now we’re only able to provide 50,” Serna says.

Emmie King, 57, who lives in Chicago and is a citizen of the Navajo Nation, says getting the fresh ingredients she grew up with in New Mexico is much more difficult for her now, especially given higher prices. She says she finds ways to “stretch” the food she buys to make it last longer. She buys meat in bulk and freezes small portions that she’ll add to stews later.

“I get what I need rather than what I want,” King says.

She was able to enjoy a taste of home at a luncheon this month at the American Indian Center of Chicago, where 20 elders gathered and enjoyed turkey tamales with cranberry-infused masa, Spanish rice with quinoa and elote pasta salad with chickpea noodles.

Pamonicutt put together the meal, with her spin on Southwestern and Northern Indigeneous food traditions. She volunteers at senior lunches and has developed a food education program.

“I want kids to learn where these foods come from,” the chef says. “That whole act of caring for your food … thanking it, understanding that it was grown to help us survive.”

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