Illustration of pieces of corn

The Fifty One

How to Save a Starving Nation

The Navajo Nation is a food desert, with life-threatening health issues on the rise. What can the next generation do to reconnect to their dietary roots?

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In the middle of the Arizona desert sits a half-acre garden oasis, bustling with fresh-grown veggies and flowers. Planted in the midst of the 27,000-square-mile Navajo Nation in 2016 as part of Coffee Pot Farms in partnership with the local Teesto Chapter, the garden now sprouts a plethora of greens as well as broccoli, peppers, tomatoes, and amaranth. A couple bushy rows of chilies, potatoes, corn and straight stocks of garlic come up from brown dirt in a way that seems defiant in the middle of this dry desert landscape.

“We do farmers’ markets and some work with the local chapters,” says Artie Yazzie, master gardener and local grower associated with Coffee Pot Farms.

Yazzie and others host gardening classes and tastings in an effort to teach locals about the variety of fruits and vegetables that can grow in the middle of the desert and how they can use them in the kitchen. This is in response to the lack of cooking skills on the Navajo Nation, a result of a combination of hardships Navajo people faced in the past and continue to deal with today, including forced assimilation and poverty. Yazzie, along with Native chefs and other food growers across the Navajo Nation and Native America, have been working on for years, taking control of traditional and contemporary foodways to help alleviate the ongoing problem of food insecurity. But growing the food isn’t enough if people on the reservation don’t know how to cook it.

“It was sad, here were some people trying to make a difference by growing the food,” says Felicia Cocotzin Ruiz, chef and holistic healer, who visited Coffee Pot Farms, “but [broccoli] was literally going to waste because no one knew how to cook it.”

In the Navajo Nation—and in Native communities across North America—access to healthy food has long been a crisis, and gardens like this are one kind of attempted solution. But it can only be a solution if people realistically use the produce coming from these farms. The art of cooking, as Ruiz points out, is not always there.

Nearly all of the Navajo Nation is designated as a food desert, according to the USDA.

Ruiz is part of a multitude of Native-led attempts to address the health, nutrition, and access to healthy food in the Navajo Nation. She leads cooking lessons in rural, Native Southwest communities out of a food truck known as “the mutton,” or the Mobile Unit for Training and Nutrition (MUTN). In addition to the more traditional gardening-and-cooking programs, video bloggers and Instagram celebrities are spearheading digital-first efforts to bring Native foodways and Native peoples’ relationship to food—including culture and traditions associated with indigenous foods—to people by way of their smartphones and tablets.

Changes like these are urgently needed in the Navajo Nation—and many other poor Native communities. The Navajo Nation is the biggest and most populous reservation in the country, and is largely considered a food desert. There are just 10 grocery stores serving the 150,000 Navajo people living there—one grocery store for every 15,000 people. There are many more convenience stores that stock cheap foods high in calories and fat, like processed pastries, chips, soda, bread, and sweets, and plenty of places to get fried, fatty foods like frybread and Spam-and-potato breakfast burritos.

The lack of access to healthy foods has predictable consequences: Native Americans have the highest rate of diabetes in the country, according to the Indian Health Services and National Health Interview Survey. To try to address these crises, funds from the Navajo “junk food tax” are distributed to 110 chapters on the reservation for health initiatives, nutrition classes, and community gardens.

At the STAR School near Flagstaff, Navajo students learn about growing food and cooking as part of their curriculum. Navajos involved in the Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program are prescribed fresh produce as part of the Community Outreach and Patient Empowerment (COPE) program. And at the political level, a Diné Food Policy, currently under consideration by the Nation’s president and vice president, focuses on food sovereignty—taking control of food in the Nation to promote health, economics, and self-sufficiency. With a food policy in place, the Nation would have more control over the foods that make it’s way into grocery stores and make it easier for local farmers to sell their food.

Not only is Ruiz part of this effort to eat healthier, but she’s also helping Navajo people reconnect with indigenous, wild food that grows around them in the desert—such as wild parsnips, cholla buds, wild spinach, and more. For some, eating wild foods was an eye-opening experience.

“So many people didn’t think about food access as having the food available in the landscape,” Ruiz says.

“Survival” Foods

 In her classes, Ruiz focuses on what the community already has, and doesn’t have. So in addition to using wild, native ingredients, she also incorporates what’s available from local grocery stores—ingredients that are affordable and available in Navajo grocery stores, such as broccoli and sweet potatoes. She says what she doesn’t do is come into a Native community and start teaching people how to make complicated sauces using $20-per-pound ingredients—that’s not productive and it’s intimidating. She says she doesn’t even describe herself as a chef, really; she calls herself a cook when she’s out and about in the MUTN.

On the Navajo Nation, access to kitchen equipment and resources can make cooking difficult. Appliances like food processors and mixers can cost hundreds of dollars, money that is simply not available to the 43 percent of Navajo people who live in poverty.

Ruiz says that some students in her classes had never before used a large knife or had any sort of cooking lessons, like those offered in some public high-school home economics classes. And that, along with the lack of access to fresh food, speaks to the larger challenge ahead of Ruiz and others: Navajo food culture has coalesced around “poor man’s foods,” or “survival foods.”

DIY signs advertising frybread, Navajo tacos, Navajo burgers, tortilla burgers, and Spam-and-potato breakfast burritos take up more space than street signs in small Navajo towns. On the reservation, these foods are a favorite. The 11,000 members of the “Navajo and Pueblo Cooking” Facebook group post a steady photostream of potatoes, tortillas, and frybread. And Bluebird Flour, a brand of bleached white flour sold in a white cotton sack, has become nearly symbolic of Navajo culture: The bluebird logo is made into aprons, earrings, entire two-piece dresses, and incorporated into all facets of contemporary Navajo culture.

“Everything we eat today is processed food, and that’s what is killing us,” says Lena Guerito, nutritionist with the Navajo Nation Special Diabetes Project, a program that includes lessons on food nutrition for Navajos with diabetes. The main food items on a lot of Navajo people’s plates are potatoes and bread, she said. And that’s hard to change.

The “survival foods” so common in the Navajo Nation were born in a time of need: In the late 1800s, the Navajo were forced by the U.S. government from their homelands in New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah to a prison camp in Fort Sumner, New Mexico.

“People returned [to Navajo lands] to find themselves with new foods that were provided by the U.S. government,” including flour, coffee, and lard, says Denisa Livingston, community advocate and community organizer for Diné Community Advocacy Alliance. “We have become accustomed to thinking that’s what food is.”

In her work as an advocate for food sovereignty—Livingston is the first woman to be elected as the Slow Food International Indigenous councilor of the Global North—she spearheaded the Navajo Nation’s junk food tax initiative. She also started focusing on where cooking habits are formed: mom’s cooking.

“When we look back at what our moms cook and what our grandmas cook, we should really question why we’re still making these [survival] foods,” Livingston says. “I think, now, we definitely have the opportunity to question if this really is authentic mom’s cooking or if it’s survival food; and also question if we’re ready to change.”

To Livingston, changing the definition of mom’s cooking is part of the larger, Indigenous movement for food sovereignty. On a small scale, food sovereignty can take place on family kitchen tables when people cook and teach their children to cook and value food, she says.

To “increase the biodiversity on our palate,” is key to spicing things up, Livingston says. “When we experience new foods, and new tastes, and new food adventures, it does lift up our spirit and it does make our hearts and minds full; that life is beautiful. I really believe that our people deserve those kinds of opportunities.”

“The Fancy Navajo”

Experiencing diverse flavors, ingredients, and restaurants also contributes to personal culinary education. But those can be added to a long list of things many Navajo people don’t have access to, Livingston says.

That doesn’t mean the passion for food and adventure is not growing on the reservation. For Alana Yazzie (no relation to Artie Yazzie), culinary adventure meant leaving her parent’s kitchen and setting up one of her own in college.

“When I got to college and I was exposed to more people, I was out there running with it and learning and trying as much as I could,” Yazzie said of her food adventures. For so long “I was on this restricted diet, and then I was no longer on parental control. I had the power and resources to buy things on my own.”

In college, at Marquette University in Wisconsin, Yazzie had colorful, sugared cereals like Lucky Charms for the first time, and she also learned about other cultures’ cuisines from her new Indonesian and Filipino friends. She found a love and appreciation for fresh vegetables, backyard gardening, and cooking.

Today, Yazzie is a lifestyle and food blogger in Phoenix who goes by “The Fancy Navajo,” and has 5,700 followers on Instagram. She posts recipes including blue corn quiche, blue corn pumpkin pancakes, Navajo boba almond milk tea, and blue corn muffins.

She didn’t always eat like that, though. Yazzie grew up on survival foods: Hamburger Helper and things that came with powdered just-add-water-and-stir sauces, she says. Her family made ends meet and as a result, there wasn’t much extra money for eating out, so a lot of cooking happened in her house. From her mother, she learned how to cook dinner, and from her older brother, she learned how to bake.

“[Since] a young age, I’ve always been fascinated with cooking,” Yazzie says. “I’ve always thought of cooking as a family, community-type gathering.”

This summer, Yazzie harvested more kale than she needed from her backyard garden and ran out of ideas for how to use it. She asked her followers and fans and they responded with dozens of healthy kale recipes, she says. It surprised her, a little bit, that those suggestions were coming from the reservation.

“People are eating kale there,” she says. “It made me happy. Whatever is happening, it needs to continue.”

Through continued online and offline outreach and social media, there are now native cooking shows, cooking videos, food bloggers like Yazzie, and chefs like Ruiz, who are bringing culinary knowledge to the people through their phones, tablets, TVs, and big food trucks. “The times changed for everybody. People are talking more about food and how to be healthy,” Yazzie says.

Learning to cook is about self-worth, Ruiz says. “People need to feel like they’re in power, which is hard from a colonized view. We’ve been taught that we’re not important.”

And it reminds Ruiz why she likes riding around in the “the mutton:” students are interacting with another Native person who understands them. They’re not being talked at by an outsider who’s telling them to stop eating everything familiar to them and start eating something else. That, she notes, obviously didn’t work out in the past.  Instead, Ruiz believes that Native-led programs, meeting people where they are, using a mix of traditional foodways and 21st-century tools, can help chart a new course for food and health in Navajo Nation and beyond.


This article was produced in partnership with Civil Eats, a daily news source for critical thought about the American food system, for DAME’s podcast, The Fifty One, which explores what national issues look like for women at the local level. You can view the full episode above, and subscribe to the podcast on iTunes.

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