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Osage Nation tribal member Ben Jacobs credits the Denver Indian Center in Colorado with supporting him during his childhood. 

Now things are coming full circle: Jacobs recently began supporting the Indian center with free meals from his fast-growing Denver-based food business, Tocabe Indigenous Marketplace. 

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The free pre-made meals, which are also being supplied to Denver Indian Health and Family Services, are an expansion of Tocabe’s Direct-to-Tribe Ready Meal program. Launched in 2023, the program supplies prepared dishes featuring traditional Indigenous ingredients sourced from Native American producers. 

“I ended up in this city because of the Denver Indian Center. It's only right to make sure we're taking care of our local community members,” Jacobs told Tribal Business News. “This is a community that has helped raise me, and still supports us.”

Rick Waters, executive director of the Denver Indian Center, said the partnership was a “generous” example of Tocabe’s ties to Denver. So far, the meals have been handed out at basketball clinics, the Center’s pow-wow, and to community members in need. 

The arrangement began in February this year, Waters said. The Indian Center will give Tocabe an estimate of what they’ll need and any multi-person meal projects, then pick up the frozen goods once they’re ready. 

Tocabe’s support brings people to events and supplies those in need with access to Indigenous food, Waters said. 

“I’ve often called Ben Jacobs one of our community’s favorite sons,” Waters told Tribal Business News. “In many cases, food is the common denominator when you're dealing with Indian people. When we can provide free meals, that adds to whatever event is at the Indian Center.”

Tocabe co-founder Ben Jacobs (Osage) credits the Denver Indian Center with supporting him as a young person. "I ended up in this city because of the Denver Indian Center," he said. (Photo: Tocabe Facebook) Tocabe co-founder Ben Jacobs (Osage) credits the Denver Indian Center with supporting him as a young person. "I ended up in this city because of the Denver Indian Center," he said. (Photo: Tocabe Facebook)

Fine-tuning urban access to Indigenous food

Funding for the direct-to-tribe program comes from supporting organizations and grants, Jacobs said. The program began with the Spirit Lake Tribe in North Dakota in February 2023. Tocabe gives frozen food to the tribe for in-turn distribution to tribal members in need. The company has distributed 17,840 meals equaling 13,380 pounds of food in this way, per a statement.  

The expansion into supporting Denver institutions comes from a $3 million investment by California-based impact nonprofit the Christensen Fund, according to Jacobs. 

The new partnerships with Denver’s Indian center and Indian health system are a “proof of concept” that Tocabe’s meal program could be customized for different communities.

For example, Spirit Lake’s food is distributed in bulk meals shipped to the tribe. In the city, Tocabe can make special meals for local institutions serving on-site. More specific dishes can be requested, and more tastes and dietary restrictions accounted for, Jacobs said. 

“With Spirit Lake, it's something they provide to each of their community members to take home and eat as needed,” Jacobs said. “Here, it’s a little more versatile. If they have to feed people on site (at the Indian center or health center), we have more options. We can ask what they would like this month, or what do they need for larger, multi-person meals. We want to make sure this catered to what people would like.” 

The distribution program’s success in both urban and rural environments means expanded access to Indigenous food, Jacobs said. The goal is getting Indigenous food to anyone: visitors to Tocabe’s restaurant or marketplace, those in need at home, or Native people further away. 

“We want to make sure our program isn’t just for rural tribal populations, but all Native populations both urban and rural. That includes people who maybe don’t have the financial means to go to the restaurant, too. Traditional food should be available to our entire population,” Jacobs said. “Wherever they are, wherever we’ve got to meet them, we should still be able to provide a meal for them.”

Tocabe also wants to provide for its suppliers. Expanding the direct-to-tribe program means more business for Native businesses and producers that supply Tocabe’s ever-expanding universe of food firms.   

Jacobs co-founded the business in 2008 with partner Matt Chandra, opening the first Tocabe restaurant. In 2021, the partners opened Tocabe Indigenous Marketplace in response to customer requests. The marketplace features Indigenous ingredients supplied by Native and local farmers. 

Last August, the company joined with the Red Lake Nation in purchasing a total 50 percent ownership stake in Arctic Circle Wild Seafoods. In October, it introduced Harvest Meals, a line of ready-made, direct-to-consumer meals for the general public as well as charitable organizations. 

There’s more growth yet to come. This summer, Tocabe plans to open another restaurant in Denver International Airport. The company also plans to continue growing direct-to-tribe Ready Meals. It’s all in service to the company’s mission: getting more Indigenous food to more people, Jacobs said. 

“We’re proud of what we’re doing,” Jacobs said. “The more food we can get into people’s hands, the better. But we’re also supporting food producers by widening their market, which is really important.”

About The Author
Chez Oxendine
Staff Writer
Chez Oxendine (Lumbee-Cheraw) is a staff writer for Tribal Business News. Based in Oklahoma, he focuses on broadband, Indigenous entrepreneurs, and federal policy. His journalism has been featured in Native News Online, Fort Gibson Times, Muskogee Phoenix, Baconian Magazine, and Oklahoma Magazine, among others.
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