Fighting Hunger in the Klamath River Basin

ImageFishermen head toward the mouth of the Klamath River.
CreditAlexandra Hootnick for The New York Times

Good morning.

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It worked out well that Lisa Hillman was at the tiny airport in McKinleyville, Humboldt County, when I called her to talk recently. She usually doesn’t have cell service.

That’s because Ms. Hillman, a member of the Karuk Tribe who works as program manager for its Píkyav Field Institute, lives two hours away in the town of Orleans, along the Klamath River.

Also a long drive away from her home: The nearest grocery store.

“They just opened up a supermarket in Hoopa, which is 40 minutes away,” she told me. “But they’re all small and they’re all super expensive.”

The tribes, like the Karuk, who live in the vast, towering forests of the Klamath River Basin — who have for centuries hunted deer and gathered acorns, who knew how to weave baskets to catch once-plentiful salmon — now face food shortages at higher rates than almost anywhere else in the country.

[Read more about how a sick river and heroin abuse have plagued communities in the Klamath River Basin.]

While 11.8 percent of households nationally experience some level of food insecurity, a recent federally funded five-year study found that 92 percent of the households in the Klamath Basin suffer from some kind of food insecurity. Almost 65 percent rely on food assistance, compared with 12 percent nationally.

But the research, which Ms. Hillman worked on along with academics from U.C. Berkeley, also found that those community members lacked access to indigenous foods — and those could better feed those communities today.

Native foods, according to the federal definition, are plants or animals that are hunted, harvested, gathered, grown or prepared using traditional Native American methods. Such foods can be wild or cultivated and they’re specific to locations and distinct cultures.

Ms. Hillman said her grandparents were taught to be ashamed to be Native American. They were sent to a faraway boarding school.

“They did the best they could,” she said. “And they taught their kids how to survive in white culture.”

Subsequent generations, as a result, haven’t gotten the lifelong education in the kind of traditional practices they’d need to cultivate a diet on native foods.

Then there’s the fact that while the tribes once had unfettered access to millions of acres, over decades, that land has been effectively closed off to the people who were its first stewards by the federal government.

[Read more about Gov. Gavin Newsom’s apology to the state’s Native Americans and about tribal leaders’ responses.]

Climate change and poor forest management have made the lands that are left less fertile for food sources. As my colleague Jose Del Real reported last year, salmon runs have declined.

On top of all that, there aren’t as many employment opportunities in remote areas, so all people can afford, Ms. Hillman said, are unhealthy commodity foods: white flour, processed sugar and milk in communities where most people are lactose intolerant.

“It’s absolutely a dead ringer for diabetes and heart disease and obesity,” Ms. Hillman said.

But Ms. Hillman said she sees promise for Native American agriculture in the most recent Farm Bill.

She said that when she sits down to eat with her six kids, they have vegetables from a garden that Ms. Hillman said is bursting right now, along with venison and jarred acorns.

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CreditT.J. Kirkpatrick for The New York Times

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CreditJason Henry for The New York Times

It’s not a complete fix for food insecurity among Native Americans, but it could be a start: My colleague Tejal Rao recently feasted at Berkeley’s Cafe Ohlone and came away recommending that we do, too.

It’s a “small, enchanting restaurant that pops up a few times a week behind a bookshop,” she wrote. It’s where a member of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe of the Bay Area lovingly recovers native cuisine and uses its ingredients as inspiration for new dishes.

Cafe Ohlone is worth a visit, Tejal wrote, “not only to eat, but to listen.”

California Today goes live at 6:30 a.m. Pacific time weekdays. Tell us what you want to see: CAtoday@nytimes.com. Were you forwarded this email? Sign up for California Today here.

Jill Cowan grew up in Orange County, went to school at U.C. Berkeley and has reported all over the state, including the Bay Area, Bakersfield and Los Angeles — but she always wants to see more. Follow along here or on Twitter, @jillcowan.

California Today is edited by Julie Bloom, who grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from U.C. Berkeley.



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