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Desert Rain Café serves more than food

In the heart of the Tohono O’odham Reservation, Loretta Oden and a team of Tohono O’odham cooks gather in the kitchen of the Desert Rain Café to not only prepare meals from traditional Tohono O’odham foods but to make a difference.

Before the 1960s, the Tohono O’odham people didn’t suffer from Type 2 diabetes. Today, more than 50 percent of all Tohono O’odham adults have adult-onset Type 2 diabetes, the highest rate in the world. According to Tohono O’odham Community Action, children as young as 6 suffer from the disease.

“I always thought diabetes was bad in Oklahoma until I came to the Tohono O’odham Reservation,” Oden said.

TOCA, a non-profit organization dedicated to creating a healthy, culturally vital and sustainable community, teamed with Oden to open the café. Tristan Reader, TOCA co-founder and co-director, said TOCA wanted to get healthy, traditional foods into the community.

“We aren’t opening a restaurant. We are promoting traditional foods.”

The traditional foods of the Tohono O’odham people are squash, tepary beans, cholla buds, prickly pear cactus, saguaro fruit and corn. Reader said in the 1930s people were able to harvest 1.6 million pounds of tepary beans, but by 1999 people could only harvest 100 pounds. This encouraged TOCA to start reproducing the traditional foods on farms and harvesting it in different communities.

“You can’t eat what you can’t get. We needed to re-grow and reproduce traditional foods to keep it alive.”

When the time came to start working on the café, Reader said TOCA asked Oden to be the chef because she has the experience and could train staff in the kitchen.

Oden, a 5-foot-tall, blue-eyed Potawatomi Native woman with long snow white hair and an Oklahoma accent, has worked closely with TOCA for six years. She’s helped with projects like the Celebration of Basketry & Native Foods Festival. She said when TOCA asked her to help she was unsure of the location, but was optimistic.

“I thought to myself, a café in Sells, Ariz.? Who is going to come to a café in such an isolated place, but by golly we’ve made it work.”

Oden said the mission of the café has three parts. The first is each dish has to contain at least one traditional food. The second is that sometimes the food is prepared as the Tohono O’odham people have for many generations and sometimes in new ways.

Either way, it is done with the utmost respect for the food that I’itoi, the Tohono O’odham Creator, provided to sustain the people of the desert, Reader said.

“There isn’t a deep fryer in the kitchen and everything is grilled, baked, roasted or sautéed,” Oden said.

The third is letting people know that traditional foods are healthy foods. She said traditional foods help regulate blood sugar levels and control diabetes.

“When we say traditional food we mean food that’s been around for 100 years,” Reader said. “Popovers (frybread) don’t count.”

As of August 2008, diabetes on the Tohono O’odham Nation had risen from 19.5 percent to 19.8 percent, said Jennie Becenti, manager of Healthy O’odham Promotion Program.

H.O.P.P. is a program on the Tohono O’odham Nation designed to reintroduce traditional foods and promote healthy living.

“The nation is really fortunate to have the café,” Becenti said. “It is something we have waited so long for and now it is finally here.”

The food brings back childhood memories for Beverly Harris, a Tohono O’odham social worker. She said the smell of corn reminds her of harvest time when her family would roast it.

“I think the café is wonderful. We (Tohono O’odham people) needed a change.”

The café serves meals like grilled chicken glazed in prickly pear and chile sauce, mesquite smoothies, sautéed squash enchiladas baked with green salsa and cheese and fire roasted ears of corn. Prices for drinks and meals range from $1.95 to $7.95.

The café also buys traditional foods from anyone who picks and brings it to the café. Oden said young people in their 20s and 30s are picking traditional foods with their children, which she thinks is great.

“I grew up in a time when everyone had a garden. I think it is good for the soul and spirit to get your hands and feet dirty.”

Oden eventually wants to bid for the school lunch program on the Tohono O’odham Reservation. If she is able to promote healthy food to the youth, then hopefully she can prevent youth from getting diabetes.