What's Growing at Red Cloud: An Emerging Sustainable Foods Program Brings Together Learning, Health, and Culture 

October 29, 2019


When volunteer Katie Chustak arrived at Red Cloud three years ago, there wasn’t much growing in Red Cloud’s greenhouse or garden. After earning her degree from Purdue in sustainable food and farming systems and agricultural education, and beginning her teaching career in the Navajo Nation, she was determined to change all that. During her years at Red Cloud, Katie has worked side-by-side with her own students—from kindergarten through high school—to create what is quickly becoming the Pine Ridge Reservation’s first farm-to-school program. By growing and harvesting nourishing foods in the greenhouse and garden, Red Cloud students are not only learning new concepts in science—they are deepening their understanding of the power of food sovereignty in healthy and vibrant communities. Here, Katie shares just a little of what’s growing at Red Cloud today, and her vision for what’s to come.


Katie sitting at the farmer's market

Katie at the Farmer's Market

Looking back, what was it like to come to Red Cloud, to take this position?

Really, this was like my dream job. It's a very meaningful application of what I studied. I’m not producing food for an arbitrary market—I get to produce it with this group of people, most importantly with our students. It’s very collaborative, and there’s so much significance in the educational component. I’ve been able to work a lot with the Lakȟota Food Sovereignty Coalition, an organization that is working on these efforts to expand access to healthy food in communities across the reservation. It’s wonderful to see our work at Red Cloud has part of a broader movement toward sovereignty—giving community members the ability to control where their food comes from, to produce it locally in a sustainable way, and to ensure it aligns with Lakota culture. Like with language revitalization, there’s a lot of energy in this space, and so much movement in a really positive direction. Getting to work on these issues, in this community, is really incredible.


students in greenhouse

Class session in the Greenhouse

How have the greenhouse and garden initiatives fit into Red Cloud’s curriculum?

When I got here, it really wasn’t being utilized very well. So initially, I was just trying to get it set up to be a part of our educational programming—to get it green and fill it with plants. But now it’s really overflowing, and we just finished our first year of year-round production! That’s always been my goal, to not have any lapses in production. And this year, we can say that, even in 100 degree summer weather and through winter blizzards, we’ve been able to keep growing.

Currently, I teach a number of senior electives (Science, Technology, and Society, Botany, and Care of Unci Maka), and then have a sign-up for any teacher who wants to bring their classroom into the greenhouse for an activity or lesson. I see our elementary school students very frequently, and I’m working to partner with more teaching staff to bring their students in. We’re also launching field trips in partnership with the museum educational program at The Heritage Center. Recently we had students from Our Lady of Lourdes, Red Cloud’s sister elementary school, come to the main campus to spend half the day in The Heritage Center and half the day in the greenhouse. And we’re just beginning to open those opportunities to other schools across the reservation as well.


inside view of greenhouse

Flourishing Plants in the Greenhouse

What’s growing in the greenhouse and garden right now?

We had cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, swiss chard, and basil. But now that’s it’s starting to get cold, we’ll move to things like kale, lettuce, spinach, and beets. With our elementary school students in particular, it’s been amazing to teach them to come down and water and weed things to keep them healthy. They see food growing in its various stages, and there are so many powerful lessons to be learned from that.

We’ve also created an aquaponic system—basically a pond that is filled with tilapia! The kids love feeding them. The pond has been a cool science teaching tool, because it’s a whole ecosystem that we maintain. I’ve been having fun having different science classes, like my Science, Technology, and Society class, take charge of it. They go through the process of making sure the nitrogen cycle is happening, and learning what that is and why it matters. It’s been a cool educational piece.


Cucumber from greenhouse

Lakȟota word for cucumber is kunkúŋ

What are some of the impacts of the growth of this initiative?

I think there are quite a few. It's been really special to see the kids excited to take care of something and watch it grow. Some of our immersion students planted sunflower seeds at the beginning of the summer, and when they got back in August they were seven or eight feet tall. They were astounded! And I think caring for things and causing them to grow provides a lot of life lessons.

I think making healthy foods more accessible is also really powerful. I’ll see kids not touch the salad bar in the cafeteria, but then get so excited to harvest the lettuce that we've been growing—and actually eat it and say how much they love salad. That’s really not a small thing, particularly on the reservation, where access to fresh produce has been limited for so long.

I get parent feedback on that too. Sometimes I’ll send things home with kids—we’ll harvest something like carrots in class, and then I’ll send them home with students, because it’s great for them to be able to share and cook what they’ve grown with their families. I've had parents say, “You know I can't get them to eat vegetables, but they’re so excited to eat what they brought home.” I love hearing what they’ve done with our foods, like putting carrots in stew. It’s just exciting.


Veggies from Greenhouse

Harvested Veggies at the Farmer's Market

Where does food fit into the picture of cultural revitalization?

I think it fits in a number of different ways. So many traditional foods became inaccessible through colonization—buffalo being the greatest loss. And not just here, but across our country and around the world, we’ve become more disconnected with our relationship with food—which is really about our relationship to the soil and the earth. We are inherently connected to the earth by the act of eating, because it’s grown from the soil. Or if it’s an animal, it has walked the earth and eaten the plants grown in the soil.

By reclaiming that relationship, it’s rebuilding that connection to the earth, and to the traditional way community members grew or produced the food that sustained them. When we grow our own food or gather traditional foods like mint or chokecherry, we’re reconnecting with the land around us.


Various Plants and Flowers in the Greenhouse

You’re looking at new ways to share healthy foods more broadly with the community as well?

Yes! This fall we launched our first farmer’s market. There isn’t a farmer’s market on our side of the reservation, so there’s a gap there that needs to be filled. One of the reasons we decided to take this on is because, while many people are excited about what we’re growing, it had really only been the kids coming down, to harvest things and take them home, or me sharing produce with those who asked for or needed it.

I wanted to create a space to make the greenhouse and garden produce more accessible to more people. I also think farmer’s markets are a cultural opportunity—because it provides a space for people to gather and share what they are producing or making locally. Ultimately, I’d love to include others who are making more specialty items, like chokecherry jam or pickles, and to include artists who might want to come and display their work. There’s a lot of room to expand, and I think our campus is a natural space to host something like this.


Red Cloud Garden

Outdoor Produce Garden

What are your hopes for the coming year, and years, in the greenhouse and garden?

There’s so much happening, and this initiative is growing so much—it’s a hard time to be a third-year volunteer, and I’m truly hoping to stay on and continue this work! There is still so much we can do.

One of the biggest steps we’re moving toward now is working with the company that staff our cafeteria to serve the produce we grow, right here on campus. That truly places us in the farm-to-school movement, because it would allow our students to not only learn about healthy foods, but to produce and consume them as well. I moved our outdoor vegetable production space in order to expand it—so that we can harvest enough to supply cafeteria meals. This will be a process, because we have to meet all the standards and health codes, but I know we can do it. And I’m so excited to have our own locally and sustainably harvest food become accessible to every single Red Cloud student.

We’re also hoping to create a space behind the greenhouse to create a garden focused on traditional plants, such as: turnips, sage, mint, sweetgrass, purple coneflower, prickly pear, chokecherries, and more. This will serve for educational purposes, to teach students about indigenous plants, but also as a gathering space as well. And down the line, there's hope we can create a traditional fruiting row—to have chokecherry, buffalo cherry, black plums, and currants. It’s all part of a future vision. But I know we can make it happen—and it will be an amazing resource for our students and for the entire community.


Marcus standing next to a 8 ft sunflower

Red Cloud Staff Member Showing How Tall the Sunflowers Grew!




Photos © Red Cloud Indian School 


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