Folks around here don't appreciate the term "Food Desert." After all, the desert southwest has been an agricultural area for thousands of years, and the desert is full of nutritious and medicinal plants. There are agricultural regions in deserts across the world, and have been since agriculture emerged.
The concept behind the term is very real -- limited access to affordable and nutritious food -- and it is a big issue in our region (and of course in many other places). At a recent farm-to-school stakeholders meeting, we learned an updated and more accurate term for this phenomenon: Food Apartheid, which captures the manmade, structural choices behind inequities in our food systems (and has the added benefit of not disparaging the desert).
Since our visit to New Mexico last summer, we've connected with the Diné Food Sovereignty Alliance (DFSA), have attended their first two Healthy Kids = Healthy Learning symposiums and a Farm-to-School Stakeholders Meeting, and have connected with our local school, where they are considering starting a school garden (that's their banana yucca in the first picture). Diabetes and heart disease are major health issues for the Navajo Nation. DFSA was instrumental in getting a controversial "Junk Food Tax" (and commensurate fresh produce tax reprieve) passed by the Navajo Nation. The tireless DFSA Director, Gloria Begay, has coordinated much of this work, and she has kindly kept us in the loop since we met her at the first symposium last year.
The farm-to-school efforts aim to catch kids while they are young, to influence patterns of eating. DFSA is still defining their farm-to-school policy, and are working on a few fronts. They aim to support local (and especially indigenous) farmers through the various requirements to get local, healthy, (and especially traditional) foods into school cafeterias. This includes working with school food service personnel to understand the laws and where there is purchasing flexibility. They support schools in gardening and food education efforts. They aim to connect community, to bring elders in to share traditional foodways with children, and to bring farmers together with each other and with schools to share, e.g., land restoration techniques.
This year's symposium was held at the STAR school, a charter school serving Navajo Nation children from early childhood through 8th grade outside of Flagstaff, Arizona. When the presentations were over we had breakout sessions, including a tour of their outdoor gardens, hoop house, aquaponics greenhouse, hydroponic growing tower, and high-tech water filtration bus that they take around to communities to purify contaminated well water.
Along with the STAR school, a few of the amazing people and organizations represented at the various meetings include Black Mesa Water Coalition (leaders in restorative economic development in the Navajo and Hopi communities and beyond), Chizzy Farms (leaders in the transition from alfalfa farming to community-based farm-to-school traditional foods education), Community Outreach and Patient Empowerment (COPE), and the Honorable Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and First Lady Phefelia Nez, both powerful speakers dedicated to health and food sovereignty issues. At the second symposium, First Lady Nez's talk moved me to tears (which made me wish I hadn't sat in the front row)!
I am very new and ignorant regarding local issues, but some of the simpler examples of structural barriers we've been learning about include "economic development" encouragement to use traditional lands to grow cash crops such as alfalfa and potatoes. These are shipped off-reservation to companies that produce hamburgers and potato chips which are sold back to the residents. Part of food sovereignty aims to shift this process, to use native lands to grow nourishing food for indigenous residents directly. In other words, to turn from the current system of food apartheid back into the original, bountiful, true food desert that used to flourish here.
We feel so lucky to have plugged into this community of passionate collaborators dedicated to moving this important work forward. Food sovereignty is at the heart of our purpose in this "next phase" of life that some call "retirement."
Here on BrownKawa Farmstead we've nibbled on piñon needles and juniper berries, gathered sage for smudge, roasted our first banana yuccas from the mesa top, and are ready to start harvesting our ripening prickly pear tunas!