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'Food is our medicine': How a Navajo chef is helping Native American elders during COVID-19 pandemic

After weeks of self-isolating because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Navajo chef Brian Yazzie decided to help out a vulnerable population the best way he could — by cooking meals for Native American elders in Minneapolis.
One of the meals that chef Brian Yazzie and his team cooked up for Native American elders in Minneapolis. (Submitted by Brian Yazzie)
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After weeks of self-isolating because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Navajo chef Brian Yazzie decided to help out a vulnerable population the best way he could — by cooking meals for Native American elders in Minneapolis.

Yazzie, who is co-owner of Intertribal Foodways, moved from Arizona to Minneapolis, and now calls it his "second home." 

"I felt like I needed to find ways to connect with the Native community here in the Twin Cities, not just to give a helping hand, but to focus on serving Indigenous food to the community members," said Yazzie.

Chef Brian Yazzie cooking large batches of food, to be sent out to Native American elders in Minneapolis. (Submitted by Brian Yazzie)

In March he reached out to Ben Shindo, executive chef at Gatherings Cafe, a Native American restaurant at the Minneapolis American Indian Centre, to ask if they had plans to use the ingredients left in the kitchen, which was now closed due to the pandemic. 

The duo met with the Minneapolis American Indian Centre, and they were soon cooking up meals together. 

"We have served over 2500 meals within a four week period … we serve anywhere from 100 to 120 meals a day, five days a week," said Yazzie. 

For Yazzie, cooking up those meals means focusing on Indigenous foods, and he has made it his goal to use 50 per cent Indigenous ingredients. 

"We have a lot of the major staples, like corn, squash … berries, [and] we have a lot of medicinal teas, elderflower tea, dandelion tea," said Yazzie.

He is also making sure to stick to using natural sweeteners, like agave and maple syrup, because the elderly population they are serving food to has a high rate of diabetes. 

"In the last seven years, researching and gaining knowledge [on food], I realized that … food is our medicine. We have to continue serving our ancestral foods, especially during a time like today," said Yazzie. 

"Just serving, for example, sage or cedar tea … has a lot of antioxidants, and a lot of these properties are able to help with your immune system." 

A team of volunteers at the Minneapolis American Indian Centre prepare food for Native American elders. (Submitted by Brian Yazzie)

During crises like the one we're experiencing now, Yazzie said Native American communities are often put "on the backburner." And in the Native American community of Minneapolis, those needing the most help are the elders.  

"When we talk about community, you know, we got to not only look towards our next generation of kids, but also look to our roots," said Yazzie.

"And that is our elders … showing that respect, and showing that common love where we came from."

With funding from Blue Cross and Blue Shield Minnesota, Yazzie hopes they can continue to cook meals at least until the end of May.

Yazzie has also reached out for funding from World Central Kitchen, an international organization started by celebrity chef José Andrés, which funds projects that feed communities in the wake of natural disasters.

In addition to cooking up hot meals for elders, Yazzie is also creating how-to cooking videos for his YouTube channel, which also focus on Indigenous ingredients. 

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