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New eyes for Native food

Jason Champagne aims to change Native American eating by teaching ancestral cooking traditions to children.

April 15, 2014

Q&A with Jason Champagne (hometown: Baldwin, Kansas)

Native chef Jason Champagne, a member of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa, is pursuing a master's degree in public health nutrition.

What's the big food challenge facing Native Americans? Food insecurity and the lack of knowledge about the nutritional value in common foods and products. A large percentage of Native people rely on food from local food shelves. Those foods are typically highly processed and high in sodium and fat. Whether or not they know the nutritional content of that food, it is all they are afforded and it's convenient. It becomes a cycle.

How do you aim to change this? By sharing my culinary education and experiences through a Native lens. My conversations with others typically lead back to my passion—cooking. I would love to teach classes that emphasize making healthier food choices and preparation that highlights the usage of traditional Native American foods.

Who is your key audience? Native American children. Almost 50 percent of Native people are under the age of eighteen. Our children need to know the basics of how to cook and how negatively the junk food that they eat affects their health. I began cooking at the age of seven. I believe that there are more Native children who possess the same passion as I do, and I want to bring this out of them.

Why did you start on this teaching path? I was lucky enough to have had a vision about twelve years ago. It changed my focus in life and allowed me to contribute to my people in a positive way. I feel that this is my calling, my purpose for being on this earth. I've been in school ten years since my vision presented itself to me, and I'm nearing completion of my education goal.

What does being a chef mean to you? I consider cooking to be an art. An artist may be a little apprehensive that someone may not understand what the artist has created. I feel the same way about my food. Not everybody likes certain foods. 

Who inspires you to push forward? My grandfather worked on the railroad system for forty years. My father was a bricklayer for forty-two years. My mother worked for Indian Health Service for almost forty years. All of these people are my inspiration.

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