USDA Food from Farm to Plate: Special Edition, Celebrating Charles "Red" Gates

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USDA Foods from Farm to Plate

FDPIR Special Edition: Celebrating Charles "Red" Gates

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In Memoria: Charles "Red" Gates from Standing Rock Sioux Tribe

Charles "Red" Gates

USDA Food and Nutrition Service is sad to announce that Charles "Red" Gates passed away on Friday, March 24, 2023. He was President for the Mountain Plains Region and First Vice President for the National Association of Food Distribution Programs on Indian Reservations (NAFDPIR), an active and influential member of the FDPIR Food Package Review Work Group, and a respected leader in the FPDIR community. His commitment and transformative advocacy work spanning over four decades was instrumental in the growth of the FDPIR program.

Red Gates and boy at Standing Rock visit

Faces of FDPIR: An Interview with Red Gates

USDA FNS staff interviewed Red Gates for an article featured in the May 2016 FDPIR Connection e-letter. The article is reprinted below with minor edits for accuracy.

Great-grandson, student, bookkeeper, father, FDPIR director, advocate, NAFDPIR president, storyteller – Red Gates has fulfilled many roles throughout his life, and his dedication and passion have catalyzed positive changes to FDPIR and the food package. Red Gates, Program Director of the Food Distribution Program for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe since 1982, shares his experience and memories for this edition of FDPIR Connection.

The Standing Rock Sioux Reservation occupies 2.5 million acres in south-central North Dakota and north-central South Dakota. Standing Rock FDPIR serves nine communities, and participants may come to the warehouse to pick up their food any time. The program also offers tailgating, due to the size of the reservation, and home deliveries to eligible households, such as those who are elderly, handicapped, shut-in, or without transportation.

Red recounted his childhood. Red’s mother died when he was four years old, and his great-grandparents raised him and his younger sister. His great-grandmother imparted to Red her spirituality and religion, and his great-grandfather passed along a strong work ethic: “If you can build it, build it. If you can fix it, fix it.” The family grew most of their own food in the garden. Red later attended boarding school and after graduating from high school, moved to California, where he worked and studied accounting and bookkeeping. A couple years later, a draft notice brought him back to North Dakota.

Red began working for the tribe in 1969 as a bookkeeper, and in 1970, he was hired permanently and held different jobs related to finance, planning, and development. When the War on Poverty brought federal programs through the Office of Economic Opportunity and Office of Native American Programs, Red’s skills as a budget writer and planner served his tribe well. After the program Red worked on was later defunded, he was delegated to another program in trouble. The commodity program – which was ordering and distributing food without keeping proper records and submitting reports – was in danger of being turned over to the state of North Dakota. While Red thought that directing the commodity program was not his ideal job, he figured he’d try it out for a while. That was in February 1982, and 34 years later, he’s still there!

Red has been involved with NAFDPIR, the National Association of FDPIR, since the very beginning. In 1989, Red was invited to a meeting with the Oklahoma and New Mexico tribes in Oklahoma City (ONFACT). At this meeting, they decided they needed a national organization, and NAFDPIR was created. Each Region had a Vice President, and in 1989 Red was elected alternate VP for the Mountain Plains Region, and then became VP a year later when the first VP stepped down. During a planning visit for the 1993 NAFDPIR conference, hosted by the Mountain Plains Region in Denver, the President of NAFDPIR mentioned to Red he would not be running for re-election and told Red, “I want you to. You’ve got all the ability and aggressiveness.” Red had never visualized himself as a leader, but after consulting with his tribal chairman and family, he decided to run and was elected President in 1993.

Red went on to serve three additional terms as NAFDPIR President because he took over for three other Presidents who resigned. Red was still a member of the board until he retired in January 2023, remaining involved as  a historian and member of the marketing and legislative committees. His contributions include authoring the first resolution that created the Food Package Review committee, which has played a valuable role in improving the food package. Red’s understanding of business and marketing has further allowed him to appreciate the value of the food package.

Red was instrumental in bringing various pilot programs to his tribe. His starring role in a 1990 hearing on hunger – the House Select Committee on Hunger selected his tribe as one of the sites – earned him an invitation to a hunger forum from USDA Secretary Mike Espy. Conversations there prompted Red to ask participants what they would like to see, and the response was fresh ground meat. Red wrote a paper about a pilot, and his tribe was selected as the pilot program for fresh frozen ground beef. Referencing the MyPlate advice to make half your plate fruits and vegetables, Red requested the addition of fresh fruits and vegetables such as apples, oranges, grapefruit, red potatoes, onions, and carrots to the food package at a June 1993 meeting with Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) leadership in Nebraska, and the pilot project for fresh fruit and vegetables for FDPIR was born. Shirley Watkins visited Standing Rock and played an important role in making this a reality.

While popular foods vary among communities, Red highlighted several favorites among his clients: ground beef, bison, chicken breast, fresh produce, juices, seasonal items such as wild cherries, cheese, and cream of mushroom soup. His program hosts weekly food demos and provides handouts and cookbooks created by the Mountain Plains Nutrition Education committee.

At first Red wasn’t convinced by the store concept, but he’s seen other tribes make it work and would like to see all the programs explore a store concept. Red loves the program, understands the needs of the people, and appreciates all the support and mentoring that has guided him. As Red and his wife have five grandchildren, he is fueled by a desire to provide food to kids who need it in the hopes that they will grow into healthy individuals.

Red would like to give recognition to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and, especially, to the Standing Rock Sioux FDPIR staff for always supporting him and for taking care of the program’s most important services to the participating households. He also thanks his wife and family for their support as he has had to be away from home many times during his tenure with FDPIR, and he is grateful to his friends at USDA/FNS, other Tribes, and members of Congress who have provided encouragement, mentoring, and assistance.

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