Food insecurity amid COVID-19 prompts Native Americans to return to their roots

PHOENIX — From a traditional hogan in a remote area on the Utah-Arizona line, Cynthia Wilson spent much of her spring sourcing drought-resistant seeds, packing them in small manila envelopes and labeling them to ship to families across the Four Corners.

Seeds for corn — white, blue and yellow. For squash. For melons. For many of the foods that long sustained her Navajo ancestors, before their land was carved into a reservation and the government started shipping in commodities. And long before the COVID-19 pandemic emptied grocery store shelves of necessities.

Wilson’s upbringing was immersed in Diné culture. Her grandfather was a medicine man, her mother an herbalist. Wilson is a nutritionist who directs the traditional foods program for Utah Diné Bikéyah, a nonprofit that promotes the healing of people and the Earth through conservation of tribal lands.

She grew up understanding the connection to food, its role in tradition and culture, ceremony and cures.

When COVID-19 began sweeping through the Navajo Nation, Wilson started Seeds and Sheep, an initiative that provides Navajos with sheep to raise and the means to start their own gardens.

The idea is to build self-reliance, fend off both food and economic insecurity, and help sustain the community until the pandemic eventually ends.

“Almost every day, it feels like there’s a GoFundMe page for funeral expenses of individuals within our community. It’s very disheartening,” Wilson said. “But in a larger context, I feel that the pandemic kind of opened up people’s eyes when it comes to sourcing food, that we can’t always depend on the grocery stores when something like this happens, that you should always go back to our self-sufficient lifestyle over the longer term.”

It is also giving rise to new efforts to address many deep-rooted disparities — and to Wilson and other grassroots champions who are leading efforts to help Native Americans persevere now and into the future.

When Seeds and Sheep launched in May, Wilson expected to help a hundred families at most. More than 300 families reached out, and she has since sent thousands of packets from her home in Monument Valley, Utah, to various parts of the Navajo Nation, which lies mostly in Arizona but stretches into southern Utah and western New Mexico.

To Wilson, the seeds represent a connection to culture, wellness, the Earth and family.

“We view food as a living, breathing being — no different than who we are,” she said. “To see the life of a seed sprout into produce, especially for the young people to see that and be involved in the teachings of that, is very encouraging.”

According to the Center for American Indian Health at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, food and water insecurity affect 25 to 40 percent of those living in rural tribal communities, and more than 80 percent of children rely on getting breakfast and lunch at schools, which have been closed during the pandemic.

There are just 13 grocery stores on the Navajo reservation, the largest in the U.S. at 27,000 square miles — bigger than West Virginia. Trips to buy food and necessities can take hours for some Navajos, and as COVID-19 caused a run on certain items, many ventured out but came home empty-handed.

Although the 174,000 people living on the reservation may not have easy access to grocery stores, Wilson noted they do have something crucial to food security: space. She believes using the land to create gardens will build a more food secure future — as COVID persists and beyond.

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