The challenges facing Native American students are many and diverse. Financial inequality, culturally insensitive institutions and access to broadband Internet are just a few regularly occurring barriers to higher education – but many times the basic needs of low-income students like food insecurity are not explicitly named. Not only is this a reality for one American Indian College Fund scholar, but also a passion that drove him to provide other students with access to low-cost, healthy alternatives for them and their families.
Erin Kiyukanpi (Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate) attained his associates degree at Sisseton Wahpeton College, a tribal college in South Dakota, and has transferred to the University of Minnesota Morris to complete his bachelors in environmental studies. While most students’ basic needs are met and can focus on their studies, Erin is a single father as well as a student, and his family faces food insecurity. His personal history with SNAP benefits (also known as food stamps) goes back to his childhood, but now as a college student and father Erin works to navigate the food aid system – exploring questions like “How does a family qualifies for SNAP benefits. How does being a college student affect eligibility? What is the application process really like, and how long does it typically take to be approved?” SNAP provides essential support for Erin and his son during his college journey, and it is these circumstances and associated struggles that have driven him to advocate for students with similar needs, and fight for changes that will improve their lives.
It was his Sustainable Communities class in the Spring of 2019 that provided Erin with a unique opportunity to raise these issues and lead his classmates to change his community. They decided to help SNAP recipients access fresh and healthy foods at local farmers markets by adding a SNAP Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) program. Relying on the expertise and connections of the University of Minnesota Morris’ campus dietician, Mary Jo Forbord, the group researched the logistics and eventually partnered with local food aid nonprofit Food Shelf. They purchased an EBT machine, and worked out a system to connect SNAP recipients with local farm fresh products. Not only can recipients use their benefits to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables at the farmers market – but they received $2 for every $1 redeemed through this innovative access program.
This initiative also gave Erin the opportunity to conduct healthy food demonstrations for other low-income kids and families at the farmers market, and through a USDA summer program. His outreach continued with incoming freshmen at University of Minnesota Morris, where he used his first-hand experience with food insecurity to educate, reduce stigma and improve supports for students facing similar challenges. Erin’s efforts have not gone unnoticed. He was invited to work with James Beard award winning “The Sioux Chef” Sean Sherman, but remains committed to his family and his education.
As Erin considers his son’s future, it provides him with even more motivation to reduce inequalities and improve conditions for his fellow students and his Native community. Seeing the difference that the farmers market program has made – providing access, building community, and supporting local growers – he hopes to bring similar changes and support to his reservation in the future. Feeling safe and welcome in any space can make a huge difference, and encourage adoption. Erin is confidently stepping into that space, and making sure that others feel the same and are not left behind.