Photographs by SAIYNA BASHIR
Dominic and Denevia Francisco, 9-year-old twins at Santa Rosa Day School, scoped the offerings at the special school event this week: traditional Native American tepary beans, corn on the cob and watermelon.
Dominic gave his corn to a cousin. Neither ate the beans. “It tastes nasty,” Denevia said.
The siblings are members of the Tohono O’odham Nation, whose people span southwestern Arizona and parts of northern Mexico, a tribe that is believed to have one of the highest rates of Type 2 diabetes in the world. A non-profit organization on the reservation has launched an ambitious plan to reverse the dangerous health trends by getting the Tohono people back to eating traditional diets at a younger age.
Judging by a recent event at the school to celebrate a new garden where traditional foods will be grown, it will be an uphill battle.
“Most of the kids around here, all they eat is chips, soda, candy and junk food,” said Brittany Gonzales, an intern at Tohono O’odham Community Action, the non-profit organization that works with the children. “They don’t realize in the long run how it’s really going to mess them up when they’re older.”
Nineteen percent of the tribe has Type 2 diabetes, compared to 9.3 percent of the general population, said Jennie Becenti, executive director of the tribe’s Department of Health and Human Services.
In the 1920s, the Tohono O’odham people produced 20,000 acres of food, according to a 2002 study by Tohono O’odham Community Action, also known as TOCA, Tohono O’odham Community College and the University of California-Davis.
Now, they produce fewer than 25 acres. Along with the loss of their crops, which their metabolisms had adapted to, the introduction of Western lifestyles, such as processed foods high in sugar and fat, exacerbated diabetes rates throughout the reservation.
American Indians and Alaska Natives are 2.3 times more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes than non-Hispanic whites, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But two research studies showed that consuming traditional foods helped lower diabetes rates in other tribes, according to the American Indian Culture and Research Journal in 2014.
In 2008, the C.D.C. gave 17 tribes, including the Tohono O’odham, $100,000 a year for five years to restore local, traditional foods and encourage physical activity.
Tribes in Arizona and Wisconsin are farming to improve food choices, and an Alaskan tribe is fishing.
TOCA, the Tohono’s top civic organization, teaches students at Santa Rosa Day School and others on the reservation how to identify and harvest the wild foods in hopes that connecting them back to their roots will prevent diabetes.
Arnoldine Smith, TOCA’s food services development coordinator, has been focused on Santa Rosa’s school lunch program. Ms. Smith meets with the cafeteria staff at least twice a week to talk about including healthier and traditional foods and teach recipes. “I love to be in the kitchen,” she said.
While a typical school meal last year was pepperoni pizza or chicken nuggets, a traditional lunch could be a prickly pear-glazed chicken wrap with tepary bean hummus and a side of corn chips. Young eaters can be hard to please, she has found, so Ms. Smith has been developing a more kid-friendly menu.
The ultimate goal is for TOCA’s farm to become Santa Rosa Day School’s only food supplier.
Traditional naturally grown beans like those TOCA provides from its farm have health benefits. White and brown tepary beans are high in protein and help regulate blood sugar levels, while mesquite beans are insulin stabilizers.
Desert people also benefit from eating two tablespoons of dried cholla buds because they have as much calcium as — but fewer calories than — a glass of milk. As for prickly pear fruit, it helps slow down digestion and keep blood sugar levels stable. These superfoods are harvested only in the desert.
Other nearby schools already have functioning gardens and nutrition classes. On a recent meeting for parents, only two people showed up, a typical low turnout, Ms. Gonzales, the intern at TOCA, said.
She pointed out a Twix wrapper rustling in the wind.
Delvina Pablo, 13, still prefers the foods of her grandfather over chips and popsicles.
“Most people need to listen and try new things,” Delvina said as she chewed her healthy traditional lunch. “Try something new, and there will be a change.”
Back to the Roots
Here is information on some traditional foods that the Tohono O’odham are bringing into the schools and how they might be incorporated into the menu.
Tepary Beansa.k.a. Bawĭ
Eaten for lunch and dinner, most popularly in a stew that often includes beef short ribs. They have 23 to 30 percent more protein than many other beans.
Cholla Cactus Budsa.k.a. Hanam
Native in the desert, so they might be in the backyard. Comparable to artichoke and asparagus, so used as a side or in salad. Rich in calcium.
Mesquite Beansa.k.a. Wihog
Twice the protein of common legumes. Mesquite flour is used in baked goods, like Desert Rain Café’s mesquite oatmeal cookies and mesquite granola.
Prickly Pear Fruita.k.a. I:bhai
No need to cook. Would make a sweet addition to a salad or salsa. Excellent source of water and calcium. Don’t eat the skin.
Produced by Yolanda Martinez
This post has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: May 26, 2015
An earlier version of this article misstated the activity of an Arizona tribe and a Wisconsin tribe to improve food choices. They are farming, not fishing and farming.