Turning Food Deserts Into Food Oases Across The Navajo Nation

For the 330,000 people who live on the Navajo Nation, the homeplace of North American civilization, diabetes is a very real threat. One in three Navajo people is pre-diabetic or diabetic, a trend that’s escalating fast. Access to nutritious food is an underlying issue: 99% of the Navajo Nation is a food desert. As Denisa Livingston points out, hearing this statistic is different from living it. There are only 11 grocery stores across the whole of the Navajo Nation and convenient stores, the main food suppliers, sell mainly processed foods like soda, chips, candy and almost no fresh food. “When this is your diet week after week for years” Denisa shares, “the ripple effects for overall health and wellbeing are staggering.”
Denisa, who is Navajo, designed and now guides a course correction that gets the root of the problem and activates community agency. She diverts funds from the tax base to resource community-initiated ideas for sparking a culture of health. She spearheaded the Healthy Diné Nation Act of 2014 with her community members, introducing a 2% additional sales tax for unhealthy foods - and in fact, a complementary law eliminates sales tax on healthy foods with a special emphasis on cultural foods.
What happens to the $3.5 million generated so far? It goes to fund ideas in community-based and community-directed health and wellness via 110 Navajo chapters so far. Each chapter has autonomy to decide what initiatives to support. Ideas include cooking classes, walking trails, healthy food preservation, traditional food knowledge classes, and support for young people to get involved. Denisa imagines the success so far as foundational to a health revolution in the Navajo Nation and an opportunity for her people to show the way for communities facing similar challenges, from other reservations to some urban centers. She adds: “We have the capacity, expertise, research, and we also have community will, an essential resource to pursue new systems of healthy change. We say: bring the ideas!’