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Reversing Decades of Food Insecurity in Navajo Nation
Navajo Nation has been dealing with food insecurity for years. CHOICE Humanitarian is giving them the tools to break the cycles of poverty.
Sparse Food Choices
That is the number of grocery stores that serve the Navajo Nation. That means only 13 grocery stores for a population of 200,000 people and a land mass of 29,000 square miles.
The Navajo Nation is a food desert. This forces people to travel great distances to acquire nutritious food, and more often than not, they are forced to omit it from their diets. Throughout the pandemic, COVID-19 restrictions further limited access to grocery stores and fresh food, making it all the more critical that healthy food be accessible.
The most impoverished part of the Navajo Nation is the Former Bennett Freeze Area (FBFA), which takes its name from a “freeze,” or moratorium, placed on all development by the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1966. The FBFA encompasses approximately one-tenth of the Nation, and over 20,000 people currently reside within its boundaries. Only lifted in 2009, the freeze contributed to high rates of poverty for the communities and families residing in the FBFA.
In this area, nearly 60% of all homes do not have access to electricity, making the refrigeration of high-quality, fresh foods nearly impossible. Instead, they are often forced to survive on nutrient-deficient, packaged foods. The vast spaces in between grocery stores are dotted with occasional gas stations and trading posts selling foods high in salt, sugar, fat, and preservatives. With alarming rates of Type 2 diabetes affecting the Navajo Nation, food security and nutrition are of paramount importance.
Growing Interest in Hoophouses
When the pandemic hit the Navajo Nation in full force, food and medical supplies came flooding in from all sources—the government, businesses, and generous citizens from the surrounding Western states. While this generosity is to be commended, most of the donated food went directly to distribution centers, beyond the reach of the elderly, persons with disabilities, and single mother heads of household.
CHOICE Humanitarian saw that this was an obstacle and leapt into action. CHOICE worked with local leaders to identify the most vulnerable populations and delivered food directly to their homes, bringing much-needed nutritious food to families—who would not have been able to access or afford fresh fruit and vegetables—along with other staples (flour, rice, beans, potatoes, water, PPE, etc.).
However, CHOICE believes in more than short-term fixes. To create a long-term solution, plans were made to build five hoophouses in the Former Bennett Freeze Area as part of a food security initiative. In the spring of 2021, the construction of the first hoophouses began. By the end of the year, a total of eight hoophouses were in operation with the help of local partners.
These hoophouses have resulted in a significant increase in available food for the people involved. Participants of the program were able to grow a wide range of nutrient-rich crops. They produced several hundred pounds of produce that were eaten, shared, or sold. By the end of 2021, over 900 lives had been affected.
Also giving the project a boost was the introduction of KoboToolbox, a virtual information tracking system that allowed farmers to share information on inputs and yields and work together to learn to increase production capacity. This continues to be utilized, along with training in agricultural methods, business development, and entrepreneurship.
As the program evolves and progresses, CHOICE plans to continue partnering with local Navajo organizations and partners to build upwards of 90-100 hoophouses in the FBFA. In the future, as more hoophouses are built, a range of technologies will be employed to accelerate progress and maximize yield.
Just the Beginning for Mae
The first hoophouse for this project was constructed in Cameron, Arizona, and managed by CHOICE Country Director Marilyn Reed and Mae Franklin, an involved Navajo community member. Mae was introduced to CHOICE during the COVID food relief project in the fall of 2020 in which she participated as a volunteer in the distribution runs. After hearing about greenhouse work that CHOICE was doing in South America, she was excited to help create similar avenues for food growth in her community.
For Mae and all other participating community members, this 100-foot demo hoophouse was an amazing adventure. It proved to residents that growing and selling food in this area is viable. The hoophouse became a hub of learning for everyone involved. Training took place about how to propagate seeds, take care of seedlings, fight off pests and insects, regulate heat, and water according to specific schedules.
The knowledge gained has been invaluable and will help future hoophouses become more productive and sustainable as they begin to fill the land of the FBFA. “We want to be able to address our supply of food,” said Mae. “A lot of [our community members] are just wanting opportunities, and so we’re providing those with this effort. This is just the beginning.”