By: Mary Ann Frank, Mike Splaine, Jolie Crowder
Denver Indian Health and Family Service, an Urban Indian Health Program, hosts the Spirit Within Project. The project offers workshops focused on traditional food and foodways and traditional and contemporary movement, funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The Denver program aims to improve social and community connectedness, resiliency, and mental and physical health by connecting community, land, foods, and culture. Traditional food resources, recipes, and classes are part of a pathway to better health identified within their community for their 3-year Tribal Practices for Wellness in Indian Country project. (Applications are due 3/16/22 for new 5-year awards.)
Indigenous communities have long recognized that food is medicine. Nutrition and diet-related issues are risk factors for dementia now recognized by public health. Research has also suggested that “heart-healthy” eating like the traditional Mediterranean diet is brain health, too.
And there is little question of the diabetes and dementia risk connection. Experts such as Dr. J. Neil Henderson (Choctaw) point out that when it comes to diabetes in Indian Country, it is not just about a person’s choice to stop eating a traditional diet. It is a problem linked at the environmental level. Dr. Henderson shares more insight into the connection between health disparities, food, and dementia in a recent blog post that you can view here.
Based on what we now know, it’s easy to make a quick leap to promote the connection between healthy eating and dementia risk reduction. But to do the best job, it’s important to really understand the social issues facing many American Indian and Alaska Native people and communities, including food insecurity. Health organizations have used the concept of “food deserts” to help understand this equity issue. They are still working on ways to fix it.
A food desert is an area with little or no access to fresh, healthy, affordable food and high poverty rates and/or low family incomes. In many communities, grocery stores that carry healthy food are far away. While fast-food restaurants and convenience stores with few healthy options are close by. “Both American Indian and Alaska Native tribal area populations are mostly rural; as a result, only 25.6% of all tribal area populations were 1 mile or less from a supermarket (defined as walking distance), compared with 58.8% of the U.S. population (Kaufman, 2014).”
Partnerships With Native Americans is actively working to relieve food insecurity for Native Elders, children, and families by partnering with dozens of reservations and food banks. According to their website, 23% of Native American households experience low food security. If you or someone you know is struggling with food security, you can click here to find a food bank nearby.
Navajo Nation, a designated food desert community, created FVRx program (Fruit and Vegetable Prescription program model) to increase access to healthy produce. They reached more than 9,050 residents. Health clinic staff and small stores are partners in promoting the program to local families. Families receive vouchers for produce after attending nutrition classes. Families can refill their FvRx prescriptions as needed. The CDC-funded project has impacted families, children, retailers (stocking more produce), and clinical and community health teams.
Food sovereignty is a newer related term that aligns with many of the cultural principles of American Indian and Alaska Native communities. Food sovereignty means securing a food supply in harmony with the land, water, and culture. It is about control. Cultivating, consuming, and preparing food in a way closer to ancestral tradition and having food choices under the guidance and governance of those consuming it. Food sovereignty empowers tribal communities to address issues of both hunger and health.
Valarie Blue Bird Jernigan (Choctaw) leads the Center for Indigenous Health Research and Policy at Oklahoma State University. Her Center is devoted to collecting knowledge and convening Alaska Native, Osage, and Choctaw community members to find and spark new ideas to achieve and sustain food sovereignty. Check out a short film about her team’s work to address tribal food systems.
According to her video, surplus food distribution in the 1960s through the 1990s was the opposite of food sovereignty. Although the U.S. government does supply food assistance to low-income tribal members, like other low-income Americans, programs are often limited to foods that are lower in nutritional value.
Dr. Jernigan and her team at The Center and the University of Hawaii recently received additional funding from the Office of Minority Health (OMH) to expand and extend their work. Partnering with the Osage Nation and the National Council of American Indians, the Center is studying Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs. They how to find out how other Indigenous communities can use these findings to improve Native food systems in their communities. Senior research director Tonya Wapskineh (Cherokee and Prairie Band Potawatomi) is a long-time tribal diabetes prevention educator in the Cherokee nation. She describes this as working an added way to address diabetes prevention. “Because to change the food environment will lead to changes in diabetes, which means less suffering from the effects of living with diabetes for decades.” Food sovereignty is also a priority for multiple Tribal Practices for Wellness in Indian Country projects.
Many programs, projects, and activities are underway in tribal communities across the U.S. that address nutrition, healthy foods, food insecurity, food sovereignty, or related chronic disease health issues. Tribal staff can learn more by talking with departments within their tribe, neighboring tribes, or searching for regional or national activities. Non-tribal public health staff might learn more by reaching out to tribal staff in their state to talk about their current programs and discuss how they might embed dementia awareness and dementia risk reduction messaging into existing programs.
If you have resources, flyers, program success stories you would be willing to share, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Links to more resources or chances to learn more:
~~ My Native Plate – a nutrition education tool; I/T/U providers can link through to order tear-off pad placemat sized guides
~~ Activity manual to honor Alaska Native cultures and traditions in a care facility – a training resource to integrate cultural activities and traditional foods in long-term care and skilled nursing facilities.