Living In A Food Desert In The Desert

Jun 7, 2016

Imagine if it took you 150 miles round trip to buy one ripe tomato. That’s what it’s like for the majority of residents living on Navajo Nation, where it’s not uncommon for people to travel across state lines to purchase groceries. People like Thomasina Holly, a para-educator in Aneth who routinely drives to Colorado and New Mexico because her nearest grocery store in Utah is too expensive for everyday items.

“We are lacking nutrition here. I really do believe if we had a lot of opportunity to receive nutrition, or garden, or farming - which it was available a long time ago - I think it would really help our students,” she said.

Holly grew up on the reservation and recalls seeing small family gardens teeming with traditional Navajo foods including corn, squash and melons all but disappear from the landscape.

“A long time ago I remember my grandma used to have a farm, and I don’t remember when it ended, but I remember she used to sit on the ground to the fire and she would cook squash and corn sautéed in a pan over an open fire. Oh and it was so good. And I miss that. And I want my daughter to experience that.”

Grocery shopping often involves a long drive across state lines for many residents of Navajo Nation.
Credit K.Munson

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines a food desert as a place where a significant portion of the population lacks access to affordable fresh produce. In rural regions, this means having a source within 10 miles from one’s home. On Navajo Nation, a 25,000-square-mile expanse that extends across Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, 99 percent of the territory meets the criteria. But the challenge to increasing healthy food access on the reservation is more than a problem of proximity.

“According to one of the observations we had, 80 percent of our inventory on Navajo Nation in the grocery stores is unhealthy,” said Denisa Livingston, legislative speaker for the Dine Community Advocacy Alliance. “And so we are looking at 80 percent, 90 percent, even in some stores, at the convenience stores 99 percent a junk food culture there. And this has been the trend for years.”

Livingston is the legislative speaker for the Diné Community Advocacy Alliance, a nonprofit that successfully lobbied the tribal government to repeal a 5 percent tax on healthy foods like fruits and vegetables, and pass the country’s first junk food tax, which took effect last April. Revenue from the tax is slated to go back into communities on the reservation this summer to fund wellness projects such as teaching traditional cooking classes.

She says the bill has prompted discussions at the register and beyond the boundaries of Navajo Nation, but that education about nutrition isn’t enough. Changes to the social and physical environment are needed too. But when you live in a place that’s 99 percent food desert, how do you increase your access to healthier foods?

“We really need to be very creative. We do need everyone’s ideas, because it’s going to take years. At least at this point we’re starting this. Maybe in 10 years or 15 years we will see more of our people having quality food access in their communities,” Livingston said.  

One strategy for increasing healthy food access is to start community gardens where people can supplement their diets with produce sown and grown themselves. But it’s not quite as simple as dropping some seeds in the ground. Most crops require a reliable water source—a luxury for many households on the reservation, where one third have incomes less than $15,000 per year. But that doesn’t mean people aren’t trying to make it work. Thomasina Holly is part of a growing effort to expand the number of community gardens on the reservation. She will start planting her first garden plot this spring in Montezuma Creek.

“I would like to plant some cherry tomatoes, some lettuce, and some corn and squash. Cucumbers. Oh my goodness, it’s so different from the one you would get from the store or Walmart. Sounds really good doesn’t it?”

Music "Forgotten Landscape" by Doxent Zsigmond.

This is first of a two-part series on food deserts in the desert. The next installment airs this Thursday afternoon.