Robert F. Kennedy Jr. recently commented, “The only way we are going to provide a healthy environment for future generations is through redesigning the food system.” In other words, we have to look beyond our grocery store’s shelves, beyond the fast-food chains, beyond the processed, packaged foodstuffs that promise poor nutrition in exchange for low prices.

So, where do we turn? To Mother Earth, and to local, sustainable food systems. We’ve got big plans for our 2-acre, naturally grown Winyan Toka Win garden, and to make that vision a reality, we’re kicking off a special Winyan Toka Win fundraising campaign.

“We need to raise a minimum of $5,000 to support the garden during this growing season,” said Julie Garreau, CRYP’s executive director. “Those funds will ensure that the garden is fully planted, maintained and harvested; the harvested produce then will be used in our youth and teen centers’ meals and snacks, in the weekly Farmers Market, in our Keya Cafe, in our Gift Shop, and in classes and workshops that involve diabetes prevention, food preparation and processing.

“The value of the food we produce in Winyan Toka Win far exceeds the $5,000 that we put into it each season,” she added. “Plus, the lessons it teaches and the knowledge it imparts are priceless. It’s a living classroom with limitless possibilities — and we know we’re caring for it the right way. At the end of each year, we know we’ve left our little piece of land in better condition than it was the year before.”

According to Garreau, CRYP is planning a significant expansion of its garden program this year. Volunteer alum Craig Martin will be returning to the youth project to work as the Winyan Toka Win gardener; longtime garden caretaker Romey Garreau, 77, will mentor Martin throughout the summer. And staff will work closely with Ann Maher, CRYP’s diabetes educator, to ensure that diabetic-friendly foods are a key focus.

The organization already is advertising to hire a sustainable agriculture coordinator. In addition, it seeks to expand its summertime Farmers Market, build an additional garden shed and construct a high-tunnel greenhouse. More details on those projects will be available in the coming weeks.

In the meantime, planting season draws ever closer, which makes the garden fundraising campaign a matter of critical importance.

“We’re hoping that our many friends and supporters around the country, and around the world, will be eager to support the garden this year,” Garreau said. “It’s such a cornerstone for our youth project, whether we’re talking about meals and snacks or about youth programming that promotes wellness and helps reconnect our children with their land.”

That sense of connectedness has always been the primary goal of the Winyan Toka Win garden. Decades ago, Garreau’s mother developed the original vision for a community garden, which would fulfill elders’ desires for traditional foods and reacquaint Lakota children with the earth.

The late Iyonne Garreau approached tribal authorities and arranged to have a north-south plot on the west side of the Cheyenne River Elderly Nutrition Center, where she served as executive director. When the center ran short of room for its potato crop, she returned to tribal government and obtained an east-west section.

“My mom always strived for native food sovereignty and security, as well as for sustainable agriculture,” Garreau explained. “She always stressed the importance of fresh produce in a daily diet; the significance of traditional foods for the Lakota people; and the powerful relationships that a naturally grown garden can foster between generations as well as between our people and the earth.”

When the garden became too much for the nutrition center to manage, CRYP staff and volunteers took on the responsibility for planting, maintaining and harvesting the garden. They serve the fruits of their labors in daily snacks and meals at The Main youth center and the Cokata Wiconi teen center, and they engage Cheyenne River’s children with a variety of garden-centric programs and activities.

Every Tuesday and Thursday, 4- to 12-year-old youth participants join the Garden Club leader and other volunteers in the garden to assist with planting, watering, weeding and harvesting. After each 45-minute garden session, they add entries to their garden journals.

Teens also get involved in the garden, helping to tend the plants, harvest the produce and even prepare and process foods in Cokata Wiconi’s commercial-grade kitchen. In addition, when CRYP hosts special events that involve a meal, teen volunteers frequently help prepare and serve foods that contain fresh Winyan Toka Win produce.

“Really, this is part of our wellness programming as much as it is part of our garden programming,” Garreau said. “Through the garden, our kids learn about nutrition and making healthy choices, which goes a long way toward combating youth diabetes on Cheyenne River.”

And the fruits of the garden go beyond the youth project’s campus. During harvest season, Winyan Toka Win produce is sold weekly through the CRYP Farmers Market. Food boxes are shared with the elderly at the Manor in Eagle Butte, and in conjunction with the Sioux YMCA, staff members and volunteers provided elders in Dupree with access to the fresh, naturally grown fruits and vegetables.

“As Lakota people, the land is important to us,” Garreau noted. “It’s part of who we are, so we need to make sure our kids establish their own connections to Mother Earth. We need to care for her, love her and protect her; to do that, the kids need to understand what a garden can do. It feeds us, it shelters us. Through its healthy produce, it protects us from diabetes and many of the other health issues that are ravaging Indian Country. And if we care for our gardens, we can ensure a safe, secure and sovereign food supply for future generations. It’s a simple but beautiful concept: Think globally, act locally.”

This year, as they do every year, CRYP’s staff members, volunteers, children and community participants will work hard to nurture the garden and harvest nutritious foods while they also learn to respect the land, the water and the plants. And they’ll learn about sustainability; rain-water harvesting, drip-irrigation and enhanced food-preservation efforts are all goals on CRYP’s list for this special piece of earth.

“The garden has taught us so much how sustainability really works,” Garreau said. “We try to incorporate those principles into everything we do here, and we always try to leave the land in better shape at the end of the growing season than it was in when we started.”

Garreau is encouraging CRYP supporters to donate funds or contact the organization for a “Garden Needs List,” and she’s actively engaged in increasing community involvement.

“We can do so much more, and we need to,” she said. “Having a garden is hard work, but it’s not impossible. And the benefits are priceless. A garden really is an outdoor fitness center, a health food store, an engine for economic development and a classroom — for all ages.”