Faces of Change

New Partnership Brings Hope to Revitalizing Navajo Food System

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By: Fiona McBride

–Bridgeport, CT

In the Navajo story of creation, the First Man and First Woman emerged into the world alongside the first kernels of white and yellow corn. Embedded in this story, is what Crystalyne Curley of the Diné Policy Institute, describes as the Navajo peoples’ “deep connection to our traditional foods.” However, on Navajo Nation, where food underlays culture and community, a stark reality of food insecurity persists. Over 75% of the Navajo population experience food insecurity, Native Americans are 60% more likely to suffer from obesity as compared to white individuals, and the USDA has identified nearly all of Navajo Nation as a food desert.

A new partnership between Partners in Health’s Community Outreach and Patient Empowerment (COPE) project, Navajo Nation, and Wholesome Wave aims to reverse this reality. Using Wholesome Wave’s Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program (FVRx) as a model, the collaboration’s focus is on increasing healthy food access in Navajo Nation, building partnerships between communities and clinics, offering chronic disease prevention outreach, and improving the diet and health of Navajo families.

In February, 10 members from the COPE team joined Wholesome Wave FVRx staff in Bridgeport, CT. Two days of brainstorm sessions and meetings with the group led to “quantum leaps in thinking,” said COPE Executive Director, Sonya Shin. For members of this collaboration, food represents a critical pivot point for change. Gloria Ann Begay, a retired educator and community advocate from Gallup, NM, summarizes this sentiment: “I have hopes. One of my elder women advocates, the late Dr. Annie Wauneka, once said ‘Some day the Navajo people will wake – wake up the sleeping giant.’ And I’m seeing a lot in food restoration and advocacy, and I think this is the moment in history we’ll make the change – and it starts with the food system.”

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Gloria Ann Begay, Navajo Educator and Community Advocate

Health equity is a central driver behind this innovative partnership. Begay reminds us that “whether it’s from the Navajo viewpoint or an outside viewpoint,” the current food system on the reservation is “unhealthy,” and it’s reflected in high rates of diet-related illness in Navajo Nation.

COPE was recently awarded the Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health (REACH) grant from the CDC to plan and carry out culturally appropriate programs to address health disparities on the Navajo Nation. REACH Program Manager, Sonlatsa Jim-Martin, born and raised on the reservation, sees nutrition education, affordable access, and food literacy as oft-overlooked components of current health work on the reservation as compared to physical fitness. She is excited to see the project explore “how food affects our bodies, what we’re putting on our plates each moment of the day, and consciousness about what we’re feeding our families.” She sees cross-sector coalition building as a crux of success: “For so long, programs and services have been working in silos. The COPE program is about coalition building and bringing experts together around food access.” Emily Piltch, a Ph.D. student at the Tufts School for Nutrition, Healthy Stores Initiative Coordinator for the project and a New Mexico native, feels the two-day meeting in Bridgeport capitalized on this collaborative sentiment successfully by matching WW’s expertise in healthy, affordable access with community wisdom and knowledge.

It is this community wisdom that extends the conservation beyond human health. Like a number of members in the group, Crystalyne Curley, of the Diné Policy Institute, grew up surrounded by agriculture in Navajo Nation. To Curley, whose grandfathers were farmers, the renewal of fresh and traditional food access not only represents better health, but community independence: “We can’t call ourselves a sovereign nation if we can’t feed our own people.”

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Crystalyne Curly of the Diné Policy Institute

Carmen George, Food Access Project Coordinator with COPE, affirms this sentiment, pointing to the myriad ways in which food underlays Navajo culture: “In Navajo culture, food is always a big part of community. Food is always brought to ceremonies. For instance, when a baby first laughs there is a party, and whoever made the baby laugh throws the party and supplies food and you give the baby a taste of all of the food.” Food insecurity, a decline in farming, and the disintegration of cultural food transmission, such as the transfer of traditional recipes from older to younger generations, stand as direct challenges to Navajo culture, according to many members of the group.

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Carmen George, Food Access Coordinator for COPE, Nikola Toledo, Grant Administrator, and Emily Piltch, Healthy Stores Initiative Coordinator

Optimism remains. Gloria Ann Begay’s closing words upon leaving Bridgeport expressed this hopefulness: “We feel an opportunity to restore traditional community through the food system.”

The Navajo people also stand to rebuild their economy through food system change. With this in mind, COPE invited John McCulloch, who owns the Teec Nos Pos Trading Post (est. 1905) in Teec Nos Pos, AZ, to participate. John’s small trading post sits in a remote location and sources everything from gasoline to livestock feed to groceries. John said it remains “challenging to keep all the balls in the air.” He was brought into discussions for his insights on the food supply chain. Incorporating the practical expertise of individuals like John has the potential to create sustainable changes in the local food economy that reflect the realities of the current economy and geography of the reservation.

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John McCulloch, Owner of Teec Nos Pos Trading Post

Economic renewal and environmental restoration are indeed part and parcel of a sustainable solution. Gloria Ann Begay’s memories speak to the economic and environmental loss that defines the contemporary Navajo experience. The productive cornfields and fruit orchards that characterized the landscape of her youth are now nonexistent due to land erosion and neglect. The thriving ranch she grew up on has dwindled as a result of drought and younger family members moving off the reservation in search of work. Building affordable access will require shifts in production and distribution that reflect patterns embodied in the way of life that many of the COPE team know from their youth or parents’ youth.

Reinstating the tribal food system could generate transformational change on a health, community, economic, and environmental level. As Sonlatsa Jim-Martin sums up beautifully: “It’s sacred. Food is sacred. Food comes from the earth and we have to respect that connection with the earth. There is a spiritual connection to food that is behind community. Food is medicine.”

Wholesome Wave