A Woodacre couple is giving their time and skills to support the Lakota living on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, which stretches across two million acres and is home to one of the most impoverished areas in the United States. Alongside staggering unemployment and skeletal incomes, the roughly 40,000 residents of Pine Ridge, who are members of the Oglala Sioux, suffer from epidemic levels of obesity, diabetes and heart disease, which contribute to the second-lowest life expectancy rate anywhere in the Western Hemisphere.
It’s a problem that Avis and Bob Licht of Woodacre are tackling head-on. Ms. Licht is an accomplished horticulturalist, a gardening educator and a co-founder of Commonweal Garden in Bolinas. In late April, she traveled to Pine Ridge to share her knowledge of sustainable growing and eating.
“When people would hear I was a gardener, they would just light up,” Ms. Licht said. “I thought they would roll their eyes, but they didn’t.”
The Lichts hopped in their 15-year-old Volkswagen camper loaded with gardening tools and seeds, and made the nearly 1,500-mile trek to the reservation. There, Ms. Licht met with the movers and shakers of the reservation’s housing and food sustainability efforts, and spent time sharing gardening skills with schools and hospitals in the area.
“I’m now connected with a person at each institution I visited,” Ms. Licht said. “It’s less me instructing than it is that now they have a person there who can instruct them. It was like me sowing the seed of an idea.”
At Red Cloud High School, Ms. Licht showed students and teachers how to plant tomatoes and strawberries in the school’s greenhouse. She and Bob met with educators interested in starting food-growing programs at Little Wound School, Oglala Lakota College and Lakota Immersion Childcare, and toured a diabetes prevention clinic in nearby Rapid City that has a small garden associated with it.
Ms. Licht brought 80 seed packets donated by the Living Seed Company, a seed-saving business owned by Point Reyes Station residents Astrid and Matt Hoffman.
The couple jumped at the opportunity to help Ms. Licht teach sustainable growing to the Lakota. “We have a great respect for the Native Americans,” Ms. Hoffman said, “and always contribute in any way that we can.”
The Lichts became involved with Pine Ridge through a San Francisco-based nutrition and lifestyle advocacy group called PATHSTAR, which they joined six years ago. The organization puts on a weeklong eating and active-lifestyle program for American Indians that culminates in a swim in the San Francisco Bay. Each October, participants from several tribes—including the Oglala Sioux, the Colville Confederated Tribes and the Oneida Nation of Washington—learn from life coaches, sports psychologists and food educators as they train for the rigorous swim, in the process acquiring healthy eating and lifestyle skills.
Nancy Iverson, a pediatrician who founded PATHSTAR and serves as its executive director, previously worked at the Indian Health Services Hospital at Pine Ridge. There she witnessed how the staggering poverty and unhealthy lifestyles the Lakota faced were often a result of a lack to access to information and an absence of lifestyle skills, such as creating schedules. The swim, Ms. Iverson reasoned, could act as a kind of “preventative medicine” to combat the ills of obesity and diabetes.
“I’m reminded constantly of the challenges of doing there what it is easier to do here,” said Ms. Iverson, who said one grocery store on the reservation contains “just mountains” of soda. “I call it the chaos of poverty. There is so much that is way out of control.”
Last year, the PATHSTAR swimmers spent a day at Ms. Licht’s garden in Woodacre, developing skills to start community gardens back on their own reservations. Now, the garden day is something Ms. Licht plans to continue doing for years to come.
“I believe that food is medicine, and that [organic food] will keep people healthy,” she said. “People learn a lot when they grow their own food, and people are sustained and nourished. It’s true for everybody, whether you’re on a reservation in South Dakota or in West Marin.”
To keep up with Avis Licht, read her blog at ediblelandscapingmadeeasy.com.