Winter 2018

Toward a Healthier Navajo Nation

Food deserts are one barrier to eating well.

More than half the members of the Navajo Nation, the largest federally recognized tribe in the United States, live below the poverty line. One-third lack plumbing and electricity. They also have some of the highest rates of childhood obesity and food insecurity in the country. Part of the challenge, said Emily Piltch, a USDA Agriculture and Food Research Initiative fellow who recently completed her doctoral studies at the Friedman School, is access to healthy foods. “According to the USDA, the entire nation is a food desert,” she said. “Some people have to drive 60 miles one way to get to a grocery store.”

Piltch, who grew up in New Mexico not far from the Navajo reservation, investigated that barrier to eating well by collaborating with a local nonprofit. She focused her dissertation on small, convenience-type stores—the only places to buy food in many communities—and the kinds of fruits and vegetables they sell. She oversaw the collection of fresh, frozen, and canned inventory data from the 71 stores in communities without a grocery store. Most had only a limited selection of fresh produce, and some had none at all. She also interviewed store managers and customers. “Many community members would like to have more fruit-and-vegetable options and get them in a less-expensive manner,” she said, “and store owners are willing to offer more, but actual demand is quite low. No one knows necessarily how to bridge the two.”

Piltch said stores could try buying from local farmers, pooling their purchasing power, and partnering with schools and other institutions that have food service to keep produce costs down. She shared her research findings with Navajo leadership and at national conferences. “I’m hopeful it’s some small step in the right direction,” she said.

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