The location of the Navajo Reservation in New Mexico near Four Corners, coupled with a lack of resources for quality refrigeration systems and a generational shift in the kinds of foods Native American youth consume, have created a significant challenge to healthy eating in the schools there. While school lunches comply with federal nutrition standards, school snacks and foods used for fundraising and rewards commonly do not. The result is that students often consume unhealthy foods during the school day in a region that is already plagued by rampant rates of type 2 diabetes and other health challenges.
To help build support and momentum for healthier school offerings, youth are being recruited and trained in not only advocating for healthy eating but also in the use of culturally relevant grains and wild foods such as wild onions and corn. The effort is ultimately designed to get Navajo youth to promote healthy eating and thereby get school administrators to act on the growing interest by implementing healthier food policies in the schools.
“Our goal is to strengthen the school wellness policy as it pertains to snacks, vending machines and school fundraising. But we also want to strengthen the cultural components of health and nutrition,” says Merrissa Johnson, programmatic grants administrator for Capacity Builders, Inc., which works with the Reach Food Coalition, a Navajo Nation partnership that focuses on food security.
Johnson says that the knowledge is there as are the traditional food resources. It’s just a matter of getting youth to understand the importance and benefits of those foods and then to make it sustainable.
“There is a generational gap – nonperishable items are often eaten by youth while their parents had the ability to eat their grandmother’s produce,” she says. “We want students and their parents to reconnect over the stove.”
As part of the effort to increase nutrition education and understanding among students, a poster contest is also being implemented in the schools. The contest and posters will focus on the importance of incorporating traditional foods in the diet. Each grade level will have a competition.
“Many of the students from the Navajo nation are very artistically inclined so the poster contest will be very positive,” says Johnson.