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Massoud Hayoun/Al Jazeera

Exclusive: Navajo Nation report raises concerns on ‘food sovereignty’

Researchers suggest the nation needs to develop homegrown solutions to counter the scarcity of healthy food

Many in the Navajo Nation do not have the food they need, even though more than half the population receives some kind of nutritional subsidy, according to a study by Navajo Nation researchers released exclusively to Al Jazeera.

The inability to adequately feed its people poses a threat to the Navajo Nation's sovereignty and sustainability, according to the study's authors, who suggest the need to develop homegrown solutions to food scarcity. 

The Diné Food Sovereignty Report, the most extensive exploration to date on the nation’s food supply, is scheduled for release next week by the Navajo think tank the Diné Policy Institute (DPI). The study reveals that 63 percent of 230 Navajo people surveyed receive some kind of government food subsidy such as food stamps.

Almost 40 percent said people in their community don’t "get enough food on a daily basis," and 60 percent say there are foods they need or want but can’t find on the reservation.

The survey pool spanned areas in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, and is the largest survey taken in the Navajo Nation.

“Through this report, I would say of the state of the nation: An emphasis has been on this wage economy,” said DPI Director Amber Crotty. “Economic development is always the issue — people trying to create more jobs. We've neglected the more basic components of human existence: having access to food.”

Crotty said that DPI staff attended a recent summit of indigenous youth where she shared with other nations how they could conduct similar studies on issues pertaining to what the report calls “food sovereignty.” 

She describes food sovereignty as the ability of the nation to provide enough food within its borders to feed its people. 

That is not happening today. Over half of the survey respondents said they obtained their groceries off the reservation, in cities like Gallup, New Mexico, that have a higher concentration of supermarkets and big-box stores. Most travel between 155 and 218 miles round trip to shop for groceries. At the market, the majority spend $300 or more on food per trip, even though more than half of respondents earn less than $20,000 a year, the study says.

Nearly three-quarters of those surveyed said that health problems such as diabetes and obesity are due to a dearth of options for obtaining healthy food. Indian Health Services says 1 in 3 Navajo either are diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes or are pre-diabetic. The study estimates the number is actually closer to half of all children and adults.

“There’s a lack of access” to healthy foods, said Dana Eldridge, the lead author of the report. When she reported that many perishable, healthy items were unavailable, the Navajo Nation government removed a tax on fresh foods, but that didn't make the items appear in markets. “What is available in gas stations and the few grocery stores [in the Navajo nation] is of poor quality — often molding vegetables,” she said.

Eldridge added that most of the food available, including the produce, comes from farms far from the nation.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture considers most of the Navajo Nation a “food desert,” meaning it is a part of the country where there is little access to fresh, healthy food.

One of the reasons for the lack of fresh, healthy options is that there is little access to arable land, according to the report. 

Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly was not available for comment.

“We aren't very sovereign if we can't even feed ourselves,” Eldridge said. “I think [the report] really pushes our conceptions of food sovereignty and begins to get at how we can actualize it from the theory to practice.”

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