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Back to Basics: Taos Pueblo Wins Health Award With Old-School Farming

On Taos Pueblo, they're cutting down on childhood obesity by getting back to their agricultural roots, and winning awards for it.
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The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation awarded Taos Pueblo a prize on June 25 for outstanding and innovative efforts to improve health locally. The Culture of Health Prize goes to six communities each year and the foundation says it included Taos Pueblo for its work drawing on cultural traditions to address modern health challenges. The Prize comes with a $25,000 award that the Pueblo will likely use to help fund its early education and elder programs.

Ian Chisholm, Tribal Secretary for Taos Pueblo, says the community’s health efforts began in 2007, when the tribe took over control of programs that had previously been managed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. That paved the way for a number of health initiatives, including a program to farm food locally for use in schools. “We have the Red Willow Farm, which grows produce," Chisholm said. "We’re able to use some of the produce grown there in the Head Start program,” which emphasizes the importance of healthy food choices for the children.

Braised rabbit

Shawn Duran is Tribal Programs Administrator for Taos Pueblo, “We’ve taken on even more responsibility ... taking on the programs, functions and services to serve our people," he said. "We’re finding solutions that we’re familiar with and turning that into programs that work for our people. ... We’re working to build a culture of health in our community by being inclusive, by sharing information with everyone that needs to have it and by seeking input ... really looking at it holistically.”

The Red Willow Community Growers Cooperative was formalized in 2010 and its mission is to revitalize the community’s agricultural-based heritage, which includes food production in fields, gardens, raised beds and greenhouses, as well as grassroots economic development through the Red Willow Farmers Market. The goal of the Farmers Market and Co-op is to produce fresh and organic fruits and vegetables for families in the community, as well as the schools and senior programs. The Market also employs a number of high school students, reconnecting a younger generation with the cycles of planning, preparing fields and growing crops to supply markets with produce.

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Community members say the demand for pueblo-grown produce from Albuquerque, Santa Fe and other parts of New Mexico is on the rise. The entrepreneurial skills that are being developed are an added bonus. Six years ago, the Red Willow Center invested in the construction of two large wood-furnace heated greenhouses to create fresh produce year-round for community members.

Taos Pueblo Head Start/My First School is a newly renovated building, serving children ages 1 to 5. A highlight of the structure is the indoor organic garden room, where students and staff grow fresh produce. “Our garden teaches our children about where food comes from, the necessity to be good stewards of living plants and animals, and the effort needed to produce healthy food for our bodies,” explains Nutrition Director Yvonne Valdez. In addition to the garden room, the Head Start now purchases all of their food from local organic grocery stores or the Red Willow Farmers Market.

A 2010 New Mexico Department of Health report stated that nearly 30 percent of children entering kindergarten in the state were overweight or obese and among these 5 year olds, about 37 percent are American Indian. This was a key factor in making healthy changes in the Head Start program, and Taos Pueblo Head Start has been recognized by the Healthy Kids Healthy Childcare Initiative as a model because of its innovative teaching strategies that incorporate healthy eating and active living lessons into the daily classroom routine.

In another community development, in January 2015, the Taos Pueblo will also be opening a new, 25-bed adolescent residential treatment center for youth with substance abuse and mental health issues, funded with federal stimulus money under the auspices of the 8 Northern Indian Pueblos Council. NIPC already offers a 14-bed residential program for men, New Moon Lodge, at Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo.

Alex Jacobs
Santa Fe NM
July 8, 2014