The Navajo Nation Preparatory School in Farmington, New Mexico prides itself on the fact that it is the only Navajo-sanctioned, college-preparatory school for Native Americans – a school that serves some of the best and brightest students from the Navajo Nation.
Students who are selected to attend the school not only focus on rigorous studies in the traditional subjects of science, math, computer science and the arts, they delve deeply into Navajo language, culture and history. The school has become an incubator for future college graduates and also future leaders within the Navajo Nation.
The students stay in dorms, necessitated by the fact that the Navajo Nation covers more than 27 thousand square miles and many of the students live hours away from the school. But that necessity has also become an opportunity to work with students to develop an appreciation of and interest in whole health, according to Merrissa Johnson of the nonprofit organization Capacity Builders, which works to support the development needs of tribes.
Johnson, school officials and students are engaged in a project to boost student health at the Preparatory School. “The students are away from their families and they need support,” says Johnson. “We want them to feel physically and mentally well, and so we are teaching them the skills to take care of themselves.”
Central to those skills is dorm wellness and healthy eating. The project’s focus includes stress management and teaching students how to cook healthy food and snacks in the dorms’ kitchenettes. To assist in that effort, the project is working with the school to purchase better electronics for the kitchenettes such as hot plates and table-top ovens.
“We are working with the students to reduce microwave use and to reduce the consumption of foods high in fats and salts,” says Johnson. “We want to take the paradigm away of making easy meals, meals of convenience.”
Following the school’s existing educational model of incorporating Navajo culture and history into the curriculum, the student health project is also engaged in multiple activities rooted in traditional Navajo foods. They are working with parents to teach them how to pack a weekly indigenous lunch. School meals are becoming more plant based and include foods such as three sisters’ salad – a traditional-based meal – blue corn mush, and traditional non-deep-fried fry bread.
A greenhouse is also in the process of being developed to teach the students how to grow their own foods, including such traditional staples such as corn, squash and beans. The greenhouse will serve as a “farm to table” model for the students.
The Preparatory School healthy eating project is part of a broad-based effort on the Navajo Nation and elsewhere in New Mexico that is receiving financial support from Voices for Healthy Kids. The effort is focused on promoting full adoption and integration of school wellness committees at charter schools that will, in turn, help ensure healthy vending machines and cafeteria-based food choices, a reduction in school-based food and beverage advertisements, and ending the use of food and sweets as a classroom reward.
In addition, like the work being done at the Navajo Preparatory School, students, teachers, and families are being engaged in the campaign to improve health and wellness. Culinary boot camps for kitchen staff and parents will be held and will demonstrate ways to incorporate fresh produce into student meals. Poster campaigns at schools will actively engage students in promoting policies that encourage healthy food and physical activity choices. Free nutrition classes will also be offered in charter schools and throughout communities to demonstrate the use of indigenous foods and roots.
The effort is designed to change a food environment in the region that has led to significant increases in diet-related illnesses and disease, including skyrocketing rates of diabetes. It is meant to reverse a trend away from traditional foods and diets that began several generations ago. Overall, more than 21,400 impoverished, high-risk students will benefit from the effort in a region that includes some of the nation’s largest geographic food deserts.
The work at the Preparatory School and in the other schools engaged in the effort is ultimately about teaching and enabling students to not only take better care of themselves, but to become future leaders in the healthy eating and traditional foods movement on the Navajo Nation and elsewhere. “It is a lifestyle sort of teaching. We want the students to look at the future,” says Johnson.
Indeed, the mission and motto of the Navajo Preparatory School – Yideeskaago Naat’aanii – reflects that goal. Translated, the motto means “Leaders Now and Into the Future.” A future of healthy, traditional eating brought on by tomorrow’s Navajo leaders.