DENVER — Fifteen years ago, Tocabe American Indian Eatery opened its first location in Denver, with a mission beyond simply serving delicious food — though ask its diehard fans, and they’ll tell you it has certainly done that, too.
“Tocabe was really developed as a way to try and share Native cuisine, but also share image, identity, culture,” said co-owner Ben Jacobs. “We wanted to make that open and available for anyone in the public to not only share our culture but to share our cuisine at the same time.”
Tocabe has gone a long way in fulfilling that mission, opening a second location in Denver and sharing Native American foods and culture to their nearly 10,000 followers on Instagram. Given that, it now is expanding its mission to address a key issue that many Native communities face: food insecurity.
“There’s a lot of food going out to communities, but we wanted to really build something that was sustainable, and really get into food deserts in rural communities,” Jacobs said.
The Direct-to-Tribe Ready Meal program gets microwave and oven-ready meals to people living on reservations. It’s a big need, with one in four Native Americans facing food insecurity in 2019, according to Feeding America. By comparison, one in nine faced food insecurity overall in the United States in the same period.
Many advocates predict food insecurity has only increased since then with the pandemic, which is what caught the attention of the co-owners at Tocabe.
Tocabe has partnered with the Spirit Lake Tribe in North Dakota to start, following conversations with an advocate for the tribe, and will be sending 1,100 meals per month to income-eligible people there. The vision is to expand to more tribes as soon as this summer.
“It’s not just any meal. It’s something that’s culturally relevant. It’s something that's Native produced,” Jacobs said. “It’s not just a way to get sustenance. It’s really a way to fulfill you from top to bottom. It’s a way to fulfill what you need from a nutritional standpoint, but also from a gratification and expression of yourself and your identity.”
The Ready Meal kits are delivered to Spirit Lake participants of the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations, a program through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) which provides food to income-eligible households on Native American reservations.