SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. – Commods have a well-deserved bad rep.
On the social networking site Facebook, friends can jokingly share “commods gifts” that demonstrate the high fat, sugar and salt content of government issued processed foods that have long been staples in many Native households: Canned beef, peaches, milk and beef stew; powdered milk; bags of farina, macaroni and cheese, roast beef and instant potatoes.
At social gatherings frybread born from scant commod ingredients like white flour and lard is a favorite topped with meat, cheese and other taco ingredients; or sweets like sugar or glazed fruit. And on some reservations, fast food is more accessible than fruits and vegetables.
With such dietary habits that developed in the decades following the forced relocation of Indian tribes and the pollution and destruction of lands and traditional systems including fishing, hunting and gathering of vegetation, it’s no wonder many in Indian country are plagued with disproportionately high instances of diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity.
In an attempt to encourage healthier lifestyles, many tribes have been introducing strategic programs that encourage edible gardening, traditional wild food gathering and healthy diets and exercise.
In June, the Tribal Council of the Sherwood Valley Band of Pomo Indians in Northern California formally adopted as tribal policy nutritional foods and increased physical activity at tribally sponsored functions.
“People in our tribe are on dialysis, we have amputees, everybody knows somebody with diabetes and I think everyone is sitting back and looking at their diet,” said tribal administrator and member Valerie Stanley. “We’ve been focusing on the children and teaching them good eating habits, now we’re saying, ‘It’s not just the children, it’s you.’ We’re slowly turning
That has meant changes including smaller portions and water instead of soda at events including a “Commodity Cook-off” during the summer Big Time ceremony, where people showed off their healthiest commodity-made food recipes – frybread made with whole wheat flour and vegetable oil.
The tribe has also been focusing on teaching lower income members, who rely on commods for meals, to make simple adjustments like rinsing canned fruits or vegetables to reduce the salt or sugar.
The tribe received a grant from the USDA to promote nutritional education as part of its Commodity Food Distribution program. The second largest program in the West, after the Navajo, it distributes commodity foods to families in a five county area.
More than 900 low income Native families (about 3,000 individuals each month) receive food on or near 23 federally recognized reservations. The Sherwood Valley tribe is located in Willits, about 150 miles north of San Francisco in a valley of the coastal mountain range.
The nutrition project addresses the need to improve the health of those receiving commods by encouraging lifestyle changes and the formal adoption of policy supporting nutrition education by other tribal governments.
“When a doctor tells you to change your habits you roll your eyes,” said Judy Fisch, the tribe’s USDA program director. “But we show people that eating traditional is eating healthy.”
The USDA has been including more whole grains and less salt and sugar in its packaged foods.
“They took out the butter, corn syrup and canned lunchmeat,” she said. “The USDA is making the effort to make these changes, but bad habits need to change too.”
American Indians and Alaska Natives are 2.2 times more likely than whites to have diabetes, according to IHS. A majority – 95 percent – of AI/ANs with diabetes suffer from Type 2, which is linked as much with lifestyle and diet as genes.
And it’s getting worse. The prevalence of diabetes among AI/ANs 20 to 29 years old increased 58 percent from 1990 to 1998, as compared with 9.1 percent increase in the U.S.
But diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity-related health problems can be prevented through better eating habits and increased physical activity.
By enacting nutrition as policy, Sherwood Valley hopes to weave nutrition education and physical activity into the lives of those living on and off the reservation, Stanley said. The tribe recently purchased pedometers, all tribal members will eventually be provided one, along with a map of walking trails.
Some of their future goals are a Million Steps March, a return to more traditional food gathering, and a video similar to the existing “Rezobics” video – but with Pomo music rather than powwow music.
“We’re doing this collectively as a tribe, we’re going to work together and be supportive of each other to get our people a little healthier – in this case step by step,” Stanley said.