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Native Currents - Wanted: A sustainable food movement, indigenous style

There is a problem in Native America today: the current rates of obesity and diabetes in our community have reached unacceptable proportions. There are many culprits in this rising epidemic. One is the “food desert,” a term that refers to a community that exists in relative isolation and exclusion, making it difficult for people to access healthy food and safe, inexpensive places to exercise. Many Indian reservations are food deserts and are largely affected by toxic food environments. These factors contribute to high rates of obesity and diabetes.

Many non-Natives who work on reservations are appalled at the conditions. One medical student working on the Tohono O’odham Reservation in Arizona observed, “There is one poorly stocked supermarket, Bashas, in the town of Sells … I’ve been told that there are Bashas in Tucson and other places and that they are decent supermarkets, but not in Sells. Somebody on the corporate ladder apparently decided that the store for the Indians would carry only super-sized Doritos and Pepsi.”

The sustainable food movement, based on the philosophy that food systems can exist in an indefinite manner without degradation to the resources on which they rely, is one crucial way to address health concerns in Native America. This movement would allow for Native communities to incorporate traditional values and customs into food production, provide food that is complementary to biological and metabolic systems of respective indigenous communities, and foster a stronger sense of tribal unity by working together to provide for the entire community.

The Tohono O’odham is one nation that decided to do something about the obesity and diabetes crisis in its community. Tohono O’odham Community Action, created in 1996 by community members, is a nonprofit organization that has helped revitalize culture, promote healthy ways of living and reduce the incidence of obesity and diabetes. TOCA has laid the foundation for a movement that, if it gained more support and funding, could drastically change the toxic food environment on reservations to an environment that promotes healthy living.

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With any mass movement comes limitations, and for Native Americans creating sustainable food projects could be a problem for communities that are located in places that are not ancestral homelands or are unfavorable for farming. Approximately two-thirds of the Native population who live in urban areas might not benefit at all. These are sizable obstacles indeed, which is why people who reside on reservations that are not ancestral lands or who do not have farmable land should be given grants by the government.

There must also be movement within the community to incorporate time-honored values into agricultural practices that may be new or different from traditional practices. Participating in sustainable projects on reservations would be a good way to get nation members who do not reside within the community more involved and provide an incentive for them to visit more often, as long as the sustainable food projects offer opportunities in which their city-dwelling brethren can participate.

Inspiring sustainable food movements across Indian country is a daunting task indeed, but with enough support a Native American sustainable food project could revolutionize the current conditions on reservations. As an ethnic community that has been subjected to the government’s horrendous policies of benign paternalism for so long, sustainable food projects created by Native Americans for Native Americans would go a long way in addressing obesity and obesity-related illnesses in Indian country.

Maya Bernadett, Tohono O’odham, is a student at Yale University and is president of the Association of Native Americans at Yale.