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Traditional Food Security for a Healthier Lifestyle

The Tohono O’odham Nation is determined to eradicate diabetes through education and prevention. They have one of the highest rates of adult-onset diabetes of any American Indian tribe in the country, 20.1 percent, but both Jennie Becenti and Tina Aguilar believe educating the nation’s children will lead to a healthy and hopefully diabetes-free tribe.

Becenti is the executive director of the Tohono O’odham Nation’s Department of Health & Human Services, and Aguilar is the program manager of the Healthy O’odham Promotion Program (HOPP). A Special Diabetes Program for Indians (SDPI) grantee, HOPP was presented with the John Pipe Voices for Change Award from the American Diabetes Association on September 26, for the program’s superior achievement in developing innovative prevention and treatment activities in American Indian communities.

The key, they say, is their collaboration with tribal and nontribal organizations, schools and communities. “It’s an effort on everybody’s part that makes such a big difference,” says Becenti.

HOPP has been featured on national TV, in local media and has won other awards for its efforts at battling what amounts to a health crisis. Aguilar says that many of the nation’s members lack transportation and a large number of their population live in such remote communities that it takes hours to get to a grocery store, making products such as milk a luxury. Promoting healthier eating habits, HOPP sponsors a traditional garden in the nation’s capitol and distributes the fresh produce to their members.

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HOPP has also introduced the Diabetes Education in Tribal Schools curriculum in four schools on their reservation—bringing in a health-care specialist, providing cooking demonstrations and promoting physical activity.

HOPP has also partnered with Tohono O’odham Community Action and other programs to address issues of food, nutrition, physical fitness, spiritual wellness and cultural integrity. “We are doing more now then ever before to prevent and eradicate diabetes by working with federal and local organizations,” says Becenti. “A few years ago our type 2 diabetes rate was really alarming—it was shooting up like a straight arrow. But HOPP, in collaboration with the Indian Health Service, has made a difference in leveling the rate off and keeping it steady.”