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Creative Solutions to Food Insecurity in the Navajo Nation

At first glance, it would seem like the Navajo community in the Arizona high desert has little in common with the inner city neighborhoods of Washington, D.C.

Both areas though, are food deserts, where residents can’t buy produce or other healthy foods because there aren’t any to be found.

page-schools-5In Washington, D.C. and other major U.S. cities, food deserts are located in low-income areas. There are no grocery stores there – just corner markets where residents can buy potato chips or soft drinks, or maybe canned soup – but not fruits or vegetables.

If you’ve got a car, you can drive a few miles to a grocery store outside of the city – but many inner city residents don’t have cars; or the time and mobility required to take public transit out for a shopping trip; or the wherewithal to carry more than a single bag of groceries on the bus or train.

In Arizona, it’s both different and the same. Within much of the Navajo Nation, the only places to buy food are convenience stores. Like the corner stores of Washington, D.C., they sell snacks and often cheese fries, but no produce.

“There aren’t enough full-service grocery stores that serve fresh fruits and vegetables.”

Navajo families usually have cars or trucks, but in Arizona, the nearest grocery store isn’t a couple of miles away – it’s more like 60 miles away.

So just as in D.C., the poorer families of Arizona live on Hot Pockets and canned pasta, potato chips and Coke, and other quick snacks bought from quick-stop stores.

“There are too many transportation barriers to accessing nutritious food,” said Renée Kube, Director of U.S. Programs for Children Incorporated. “There aren’t enough full-service grocery stores that serve fresh fruits and vegetables.”

Solving the Problem

pinon-scenesIn Washington, D.C., Children Incorporated has been solving the problem by launching farmers’ markets in the schools. The Joyful Food Market is a partnership program between Children Incorporated and local non-profit Martha’s Table, which allows families to shop for fresh produce just as at any other farmers’ market.

The only difference is that at the Joyful Food Market, everything is free. Families are allotted specific portions of each item, and they can walk through the aisles themselves to select what they want. Children are allowed to do the shopping, too; some parents can’t get to the market after school, so volunteers help the children shop for their entire families.

The Joyful Food Market approach doesn’t work in rural Arizona though, partly because so many of the children live at school rather than at home.

So Children Incorporated volunteers are taking a different approach there.

Out West

The Navajo Nation consists of 25,000 square miles of land, but no real cities. Flagstaff, Page, Albuquerque, Farmington, and Durango are all well outside of the Navajo Nation, and each requires a long drive across bad roads in order to get there.

Inside the Navajo Nation, Children Incorporated works in several schools, helping provide students and their families with clothes, shoes, hygiene items, and school supplies – plus, of course, healthy food.

Kube visited the Navajo Nation schools last October with Shelley Oxenham, Children Incorporated’s U.S. Project Specialist. Together, they discussed with volunteer coordinators the different needs and programs at each school.

pinon-community-school-18What the schools have in common is that most of their students are poor. Many don’t live with their parents, because their parents aren’t in the picture at all, or because their parents have taken work in remote locations. Children live with other relatives or at school; and while most aren’t starving, they suffer from food insecurity, poor nutrition, and a lack of money for basic necessities.

Gardens in the Desert

Teachers and volunteer coordinators at the Navajo schools focus on academics, as well as on life skills and health. To meet their goals, several schools have implemented gardening programs.

The Saint Michaels Association for Special Education provides education and care for children who are mentally or physically disabled. The school has built a handicap-accessible garden with paths and plant beds built for easy access by students in wheelchairs.

The idea, Kube said, is to add nutritious food to the children’s diets whenever possible, and also to give the children hands-on experience working in the garden and helping to make plants grow. The children raise houseplants and flowers in addition to vegetables, which the cafeteria staff prepares for student meals.

st-michaels-3There aren’t a lot of crops that grow well in the desert, but corn, beans, and squash – collectively referred to as the “three sisters” – do well, and when planted together, help one another to grow. They are at the center of Native American cooking traditions, and are grown in school programs and at home by the children’s families.

Pinon Community School is another Navajo school served by Children Incorporated. George Tso, the residential hall manager at the school, helps the students perpetuate their cultural heritage by working with local elders to teach them traditional Navajo skills, such as weaving, butchering meat, and building sweat lodges.

And, of course, raising crops.

“They’re growing corn, cilantro, habanero peppers, strawberries, squash, and tomatoes,” said Oxenham. “They also have two beehives set up with bees to pollinate the plants.”

Challenged by Geography

st-michaels-4Rocky Ridge Boarding School is one of the most rural in the area, accessible only by dirt roads on the border between the Navajo and Hopi Nations. Most of the students at Rocky Ridge are day students, but some stay at school all week. (Many of the Navajo schools have boarding options, generally because families live too far away, and the dirt roads become nearly impassable during the rainy season.)

Rocky Ridge is trying to implement a garden plan that children can replicate at home. Instead of building a large greenhouse or a huge school-wide garden, school administrators envision little garden plots that are easy for children to build themselves. That way, Oxenham said, they can build their own gardens at home using the skills they learn at school.

But there’s a hitch. Many Navajo families have no running water, and some have no electricity – so otherwise simple tasks become difficult.

“Gardens need to be built with a wind break; otherwise, the plants often cannot survive,” Oxenham said. “They’re working out how to do this and how to fund it.”

“Many families haul water, so there is a lack of excess water to be used for things like gardens, which, in such a dry climate, would require a lot of water,” she said.

Then there’s the wind.

“Gardens need to be built with a wind break; otherwise, the plants often cannot survive,” Oxenham said. “They’re working out how to do this and how to fund it.”

Healthy Eating for Life

It’s all part of a greater effort to get nutritious food, rather than just any food, to the nation’s poorest children.

“The matter of adding more fresh fruits and vegetables to people’s diets has come to the forefront,” Kube said. “Interest is growing amongst the coordinators, and it’s an area we have identified as one for current and future Hope in Action Fund proposals.”

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HOW DO I SPONSOR A CHILD IN Arizona?

You can sponsor a child in Arizona by calling our office and speaking with one of our sponsorship specialists at 1-800-538-5381 or by emailing us at sponsorship@childrenincorporated.org.

Fruits and Vegetables Blossom in the Middle of a Food Desert

It’s hard to imagine a lack of food in the nation’s capital – but there is one.

A “food desert” is a place where fresh fruit and vegetables can’t be purchased, and Washington, D.C. is just such a place. Large parts of the city – specifically the poorer parts – don’t have grocery stores. Instead, they have corner markets where one can purchase snacks and some canned goods, but not nutritious whole foods.

moten-elem-school__joyful-market

“If families have transportation barriers or illnesses, or mobility problems or other barriers to getting out of their neighborhoods, what they’re limited to is these little corner stores,” said Renée Kube, Director of U.S. Programs for Children Incorporated. “For thousands of families in the city, fresh fruits and vegetables just can’t be found.”

Except at school.

Lucy Ellen Moten Elementary School is located in Ward 8 – one of D.C.’s poorest areas. But families there are getting fresh produce each month through the Joyful Market, a partnership program between Children Incorporated and local nonprofit Martha’s Table.


Free Shopping

Florangel Cuesta-Smith, our volunteer coordinator at Lucy Ellen Moten, said the program serves about 150 families a month in a school of about 430 students.

“It’s been very appreciated, and it’s also increased parent engagement, because parents are volunteering to come in and do set-up or clean-up,” she said. “That’s a big deal for a school that’s struggling to have a viable PTA.”

Once a month, volunteers set up a market of fresh fruit and vegetables inside the school. Families – or the children – can come shop for their own produce, picking out the items they want.

Everything is free, and each family is allotted a certain portion based on the number of people in them. In many cases, parents or caregivers can’t attend, so the children can do the shopping for themselves with help from volunteers.

“Because the school offers a pre-K program, children as young as three often participate on their own,” said Cuesta-Smith.

“I pre-package the produce for the littlest ones so it’s not too much for them to carry,” she said. “They take it out with them to parent-pickup at the end of the day.”

“While some children do the shopping alone, in other cases, parents or guardians help with the operation,” Kubée said.

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“It’s been very appreciated, and it’s also increased parent engagement, because parents are volunteering to come in and do set-up or clean-up,” she said. “That’s a big deal for a school that’s struggling to have a viable PTA.”

“That involvement has had positive repercussions for the school as a whole as well,” Kubée said. Parents have been telling school officials that before, the only interaction they ever had with the school was when their children were in trouble. Now, they’re working with teachers and officials in happier situations, forming bonds between the school and the families it serves.

Learning to Cook

Another reason for parent involvement at the Joyful Market is the guest chef.

Each month, Martha’s Table brings in a guest chef who prepares a healthy snack or meal using the items featured in the market.

Shoppers can try out banana apple smoothies or bean soup, or they can learn how to prepare and cook a butternut squash.

“The kids love that,” said Cuesta-Smith. “And the chef hands out recipes they can take home with them.”

“Allowing kids to try the food first, and letting adults see how easy it is to prepare has been a good way to encourage healthy eating,” Kubée added.

“‘You, too can try eggplant and love it!’ is an idea that resonates if the kids actually get a chance to try it first,” she said.

Portion Control

“On average, we have between sixty and 100 families that attend our monthly market,” she said. “Many of our families have a lot of people living in the household, so one limitation of our particular market is that we cannot give out food in accordance to the number of people living in the home.”

Nearby Hart Middle School also has a successful Joyful Market program, and coordinator Ashely Lyles said they’re hoping for more funding to expand its portions.

“On average, we have between sixty and 100 families that attend our monthly market,” she said. “Many of our families have a lot of people living in the household, so one limitation of our particular market is that we cannot give out food in accordance to the number of people living in the home.”

“Currently,” she added, “a family of ten gets the same portions as a family of five, and that’s an issue they could fix with more money as the market grows in popularity. It would be great to be able to provide extra food for the families with lots of folks living in the home,” she said.

But the Joyful Market hasn’t worked everywhere, so Children Incorporated and local volunteer coordinators have branched out with alternative ideas.

Digging in the Dirt

On the other side of D.C., in Ward 1, the Cardozo Education Campus is a combined middle and high school where Children Incorporated helped create a school garden after the market didn’t work.

One of the problems was that many of the students there are homeless or live in shelters. “Because they can’t cook or prepare food in the shelters, take-home shopping bags full of squash or zucchini didn’t work well for them,” Kubée said.

So volunteers nixed the market, and instead built a school garden.

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“When the kids grew their own fresh Roma tomatoes, they were more likely to eat them – especially when they could add basil and oregano that they’ve grown, and put the tomatoes and herbs on a pizza,” she said.

The garden is also being used by the science teachers, so kids get biology lessons from it as well.

“After your try new foods, you and your science teacher can take them apart and dissect them,” she said, noting that they use vegetables to learn about cell structure and functions. “It’s great hands-on learning.”

Across the Country

The school garden is an alternative that Children Incorporated has been using in rural food deserts as well. At the Saint Michaels Association for Special Education in Arizona, the school has built a handicap-accessible garden with paths and plant beds built for easy access by students in wheelchairs.

It’s all part of an overall plan to reduce food deserts and food insecurity nationwide.

“We all know intuitively that children who are hungry when they go to school cannot do their best work while in class,” Kubée said. “Relieving hunger is a vital part of our kids’ ability to develop, grow, learn, and thrive.”

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HOW DO I SPONSOR A CHILD IN Washington, D.C.?

You can sponsor a child in D.C. in one of two ways – call our office and speak with one of our sponsorship specialists at 1-800-538-5381, or email us at sponsorship@children-inc.org.