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National Obesity Conference to Focus on Increasing Healthy Foods and Environments

It’s no secret that childhood obesity is soaring, especially among Native American children. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2007 report, American Indian and Alaska Native preschool children (ages 2-5) have the highest obesity rate at an alarming 20.2 percent.

Now, a two-day conference will address new ways to fight this epidemic. “Fostering Sustainable Strategies to Create Healthy, Active Native Communities” will be held March 13 and 14 at the in San Diego. All tribal leaders, educators and those who are involved in creating healthier Native communities are encouraged to attend.

The conference has been organized by the Healthy, Active Native Communities (HANC) program of the Association of American Indian Physicians (AAIP). “Obesity in general is a national and worldwide epidemic,” said HANC Director Noelle Kleszynski. “I think the same applies for Indian country as applies for the rest of the nation. Healthier environments and healthful foods are not easily accessible to the majority of American Indians or American citizens.”

“What we want to do is really share ideas that work and to provide models of successful programs” within those communities. Therefore, people can decide which tribal program to model and “adapt those strategies and replicate it in their own tribal communities at home,” Kleszynski said.

HANC was originally a part of the AAIP Diabetes Prevention Program. But it became an independent entity after receiving a Communities Putting Prevention to Work grant as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

In nearly two years, HANC has worked with 12 tribal governments and Native organizations to create wellness and nutrition programs across the country. Its beneficiaries include the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, the Organized Village of Kasaan in Alaska, the Center for Cherokee Plants in Cherokee, North Carolina, and the Yavapai-Apache Nation of Arizona.

The causes of obesity are many, ranging from the need for more exercise to the lack of adequate grocery stores in Native communities and on reservations. In many cases, grocery stores that offer fruits and vegetables are miles away, and available foods at convenience stores are simply that—more convenient.

To that end, HANC relies on a variety of remedies. For example, it has helped create a school wellness policy at the Pueblo of Jemez in New Mexico. The program “ensures that the children are going to get time for physical activity, and that they use fruits and vegetables from their community garden at their schools during school lunches,” said Kleszynski. “It’s just, again, making healthier options available for the kids.”

Community gardens have been effective in many rural communities, Kleszynski said. At Zuni Pueblo, participants in the tribal Women, Infants and Children Program can obtain fresh produce at the local farmers’ market. Similarly, the White Earth Reservation Wellness Project in Minnesota offers a farm-to-cafeteria program at tribal government headquarters.

Farming and agriculture has been a part of tribal existence for centuries, but growing foods locally is a relatively new trend for many Indian nations today. At the same time, while eating homegrown food is a major step in the right direction to regaining health, exercise is still essential, Kleszynski stressed: “One thing [tribes] can do is really focus on increasing physical activity options through work-site wellness policies or school wellness policies.”

Kleszynski also recommended exercising as a family. “You can participate in walking everyday. You can also participate in tribal ceremonies where dancing is an option. Gardening is another way that you can work activity into your everyday life. There’s a lot of things that families can do together.”

Registration for the “Fostering Sustainable Strategies” conference is $100 before February 15 and $135 after that date. For more information, visit the AAIP website at