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Epic Provisions has found success selling bars made of buffalo meat and dried fruit as a high-protein snack — a food enjoyed by Native Americans throughout history — but it’s a success story built on cultural appropriation and privilege.
Native Americans have eaten a mix of dried meats, nuts and fruits for hundreds of years — some tribes call it wasna, others pemmican. But Epic Provisions, an Austin, Texas-based food company now owned by General Mills, doesn’t acknowledge this history. On top of that, the product they claim to have created had already been packaged into bar form by a South Dakota-based certified B-corp food business called Tanka.
Tanka, co-founded by Mark Tilsen and Karlene Hunter, a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, and which mostly employs Lakota Tribe members, introduced its mostly grass-fed bars made of buffalo meat and dried fruit in fall 2007. It caught the attention of The New York Times soon after. Tanka products are currently sold in 4,000 stores, with most sales happening through Amazon. They’re also available on 300 Indian reservations.
Five years after Tanka’s debut, former vegans and husband-and-wife duo Taylor Collins and Katie Forrest pivoted from their first company, the plant-based Thunderbird Energetica (which also used appropriated imagery from native peoples and claimed their bars were "shaman-blessed"), to Epic Provisions, makers of "the original meat, fruit and nut bar," according to Epic Provisions’ website. During an interview with Entrepreneur last year, the pair said the product was the star of 2013’s Expo West, the natural food industry’s biggest show.
"We just showed up and kind of stole the show," Collins said. He added that Whole Foods wanted to carry their products nationally based on that appearance. Then, in 2016, Epic achieved the dream of many food startups: It was acquired by a food giant, in this case, General Mills (for a reported $100 million). In a press release, General Mills said that the Epic bar was "the first of its kind" and "created a new snacking category."
That claim is false.
Even before Europeans came to North America, Natives Americans, particularly those of the plains tribes, would create preserved buffalo meat that could be taken on the road.
"There were certain recipes for putting [buffalo meat and fruit such as chokeberries] together and mixing buffalo fat in for something they were able to store and utilize throughout the year," said James Trosper, executive director of the High Plains American Indian Research Institute at the University of Wyoming. (His mother is Eastern Shoshone and his father is Northern Arapaho.) "The plains lifestyle was always on the move."
Of course, multiple people can come up with the same idea, and countless entrepreneurs have beaten out their competition by presenting a similar product with better branding — even if they weren’t the first to enter the market. But Epic’s founders, General Mills and some press coverage have insisted the company were the first to come out with their meat bars. Whether this is a result of ignorance or negligence is unclear.
Unfortunately, Epic’s case is not unique. From other food brands to sports teams to architecture, Native American imagery can be found everywhere.
"Most of the food products that we market in North America, we exploited from some indigenous people somewhere," Tilsen said. "And the result is we’ve impoverished a lot of them."
According to the 2017 Census, there were 6.7 million people identified as American Indian or Alaska Native in the United States. More than a quarter, 26.2 percent, reported living in poverty, the highest rate of any race group. The average yearly income for this population is $39,719, almost $20,000 lower than the national average.
Part of Tanka’s mission is to provide jobs for Native Americans, many of whom had never shopped at a Whole Foods, Tilsen said. "We didn’t go to one of the poorest places in the country and say, ‘Oh, this is a great place to grow a brand that we could then flip,’" he said. "We’re actually building a brand to become an asset to the community and break generations of poverty while we’re restoring a keystone species to the Great Plains."
While bison and other types of meat are a commodity to be profited off of for General Mills — an in-depth New Food Economy article questions the company’s sustainability efforts — Tanka wants the migratory animal to return to the lands they once roamed.
"The destruction of the buffalo left our people the poorest of the poor and our lands abused and exploited," Hunter said. "As we rebuild our native community by reuniting the people and buffalo, we are rebuilding our economies, culture, lands, grass and soil."
Trosper said that the restoration of the buffalo is not only significant as a food source, but for ceremonial and spiritual purposes as well. The animal’s return to the plains has also shown to help the proliferation of certain plants and the elimination of certain weeds, he added.
In a statement to Entrepreneur, a General Mills spokesperson did not address Tanka or the Native American heritage of meat bars.
"What has made Epic a unique standout in the marketplace has been its commitment to improving animal supply chains, which was a key principal when co-founders Taylor Collins and Katie Forrest launched their first product — a 100 percent grass-fed meat, fruit and nut bar. … Epic continues to advance its mission to improving the animal supply chain while providing transparency of its suppliers’ practices whenever possible. This is detailed in Epic’s Honesty Pledge, which reveals details of Epic’s supply chain to anyone who wishes to know more about what they’re eating. Conscious consumers can read through each of the 10 animals that go into Epic products to learn how the company is currently sourcing the meat as well as the brand’s future goals."
But Tilsen has reason to be doubtful about these efforts.
"The real issue is, as these corporations put themselves in leadership of our natural food system, will it stay healthy and natural?" Tilsen asked. "We’re talking about the same company that markets sugar to children on morning television. Will they have the ethos and the ethics to come up with a better grazing system, as opposed to the people who’ve been protecting this land for hundreds, if not thousands of years? I think it’s crazy."
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March 11, 2019 at 11:36AM