Improving Health and Creating Opportunity with North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems

The Indigenous Food Lab in Minneapolis, MN

Nov 21, 2023

North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems (NĀTIFS) is a recipient of an Impact Grant from, the company’s social impact arm, as a part of its Pledge 1% commitment. Founded by Chef Sean Sherman, also known as The Sioux Chef, NĀTIFS is dedicated to addressing the economic and health crises facing Native communities by re-establishing knowledge around Native ingredients and food traditions. The Spotlight Series highlights outstanding organizations dedicated to enriching the food experience for all.

North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems (NĀTIFS) is a nonprofit focused on creating access to Indigenous ingredients, and education around them, in order to help restore the health and wellbeing of Indigenous communities. Headquartered in Minneapolis, the organization has established the Indigenous Food Lab, a professional kitchen for Indigenous entrepreneurs with a classroom and demonstration studio to share knowledge, and the Indigenous Food Lab Market, where products are available to the public. Through this multifaceted program, NĀTIFS hopes to help redefine Indigenous culinary traditions while also supporting tribal economies and helping Indigenous people better understand their heritage.

We connected with NĀTIFS to learn more about their work and how coming to understand the ingredients and food traditions from the land we live on and eat from every day can help shape healthy and sustainable food systems for generations to come.

Discover A “New” Cuisine

Open your favorite food delivery app—perhaps the Toast Takeout app—and you can likely find cuisine from all over the world, but you may not find a restaurant offering food from a native culture in your area prepared by Indigenous peoples. Growing up and building his career in kitchens across South Dakota and Minnesota, NĀTIFS founder Sean Sherman noticed the same. Even as a Native American chef himself, he could barely name any recipes or ingredients Indigenous to his own tribe, the Lakota. As he explains in his TED Talk, “no matter where we are, we’re standing on Indigenous land, so we should have a really good, strong sense of Indigenous food.”

It was this dichotomy that inspired him to start The Sioux Chef, a company which focuses on regional Indigenous foods with traditional ingredients and supporting tribal producers. Sherman then went on to found NĀTIFS to deepen his impact, promoting not only awareness around Indigenous foods but creating educational and financial opportunities for the Native American communities.

“What’s really cool about how this organization works is that it’s positioned in a ‘fourth sector’ space—it's a nonprofit, but it's also working in for-profit spaces. It's using for-profit as a vehicle for social change,” said Hannah Hostetter, Project & Organizational Development Lead at NĀTIFS. “We’re thinking about how we can build businesses, how we can build entrepreneurs to really change the landscape in terms of food access, as well as health and education in tribal communities and Urban Indian communities just across the board, across the world.”

NĀTIFS works towards these goals through a number of initiatives, including their Indigenous Food Lab, a kitchen and retail space in Minneapolis used to showcase Indigenous foods and products, while helping educate the community on traditional recipes from the land they walk on every day. The space is also home to a market where visitors can sample and support products from Indigenous food entrepreneurs.

Shopping at the Indigenous Food Lab Market

Along with building this awareness, NĀTIFS is also focused on supporting health and food access specifically for Native Americans, recently partnering with the USDA to launch the Indigenous Food Sovereignty Initiative. Hostetter explains that while the government has a number of programs to combat food insecurity across the country, they tend to have specific challenges with reaching Native American communities on reservations—one being that there are often access barriers to traditional grocery stores that can take Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, one of the major federal programs that help low-income families buy food. 

To correct for this, the government offers food distribution programs, however, these can often include limited ingredients, which is where NĀTIFS comes in. For the first year of this partnership, NĀTIFS worked with Indigenous chefs across the country to develop recipes and instructional videos that showcase how to combine government-provided foods with locally-forageable ingredients.

“We tried to put together recipes that use what people have, what we know they have access to and then also incorporate some of these wild and Indigenous plants that they can harvest on their own,” said Hostetter. “[With these ingredients] you can make these recipes healthier and more culturally relevant and get people outside and engaging with the plants and the land around them.”

Food as Medicine

In many cases, the ingredients NĀTIFS focuses on are all around us—like dandelions—but the knowledge of how to use them has been lost to many over time.

“There are some products that people just aren't as familiar with, or in some cases, they're not necessarily as familiar with all the different ways to prepare them,” said Hostetter. “We really believe in learning through eating; it's really a tangible way of talking about these topics.”

Francesca Garcia initially joined NĀTIFS as a culinary team member but has shifted to help support teaching efforts officially as Herbal Educator. As a trained herbalist, Garcia studies the healing powers of plants and how they can work often to supplement modern medicine.

“I create a lot of programming that we can teach kids and schools and the community around herbs that are pretty accessible, some that are all around us that you might see when you walk along the streets,” said Garcia. “I want to highlight that these are not useless plants, what people call ‘weeds’, that you wouldn’t want in your yard, they can be very medicinal and can help support the body's needs.”

In addition to her work to support NĀTIFS’ educational programming, the organization is also helping her to develop and grow her own business with her sister Jessica Ferlaak, Two Sisters Herbals, a line of herbal tea blends and other remedies that will soon be sold in the Indigenous Food Lab Market.

“What I do love about working with NĀTIFS is how we are also doing work to help support Indigenous entrepreneurship, and those who may need a little extra help or guidance,” said Garcia. “Right now they're offering the space, which is great exposure for us. It's like an extra supportive incubator, which has been really helpful.”Tea blends from Two Sisters Herbals

Connection To The Past

As NĀTIFS strives to promote the future of Indigenous foods and communities, a critical element of what they do is helping reclaim traditions of those before us. Beyond sharing delicious food and recipes, inherent to NĀTIFS’ mission is using the wisdom of tribal communities to affect change in our food systems.

“There’s so much about the world and about how things are put together that food is at the center of,” said Hostetter. “You can see the history of these continents based on the history of the foods that are there, the different people that have lived there and how they interacted with it.” 

And as they reflect on the traditions of Indigenous land and people, working with food offers an opportunity to celebrate all kinds of Indigenous history.

“So much was lost in terms of our food systems, so for Indigenous communities, it's a reclamation of identity, it's reclamation of knowledge and culture,” said Hostetter. 

Hannah Hostetter is the Projects and Organizational Department Lead at NĀTIFS. She has her Master’s in Food Studies and Business Administration from Chatham University. Hannah is a lineal descendant of the Oglala Lakota tribe, like Sherman.

Francesca Garcia is an Herbal Educator at NĀTIFS and an entrepreneur. You can connect with her herbal remedy company, Two Sisters Herbals, on their website and Instagram.

You can learn more about NĀTIFS on their website and connect with them on Instagram.

This information is provided for general informational purposes only, and publication does not constitute an endorsement. Toast does not warrant the accuracy or completeness of any information, text, graphics, links, or other items contained within this content. 

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