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Increasing vegetation through education

Improving healthy eating among members of the Navajo Nation

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Dream Dine

Members of the Navajo Nation in New Mexico often have to drive a long way to the nearest grocery store, where food quality is subpar and prices are high. Some parts of the area do not have sufficient irrigation, which discourages people from farming or gardening. All these factors have led to low fresh food and vegetable intake, and ultimately high rates of diabetes and obesity.

Researchers at the UW School of Public Health are working with these communities to change that, however, and increase the availability of fresh foods for everyone.

The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, New Mexico State University and the Navajo Nation recently collaborated to launch “The Yeego (Let’s go) Gardening!” project, which involves researchers surveying the gardening behaviors and fruit and vegetable intakes of community members, hoping to change behaviors related to both among local populations.

“We are trying to reintroduce gardening as a hobby and as a way of increasing access to food and vegetables,” said India Ornelas, UW assistant professor of health services. “[In] areas that don’t have sufficient access to water and good quality soil, we are also trying to teach them how to garden even though the soil might not be the best. There are things you can do to have better irrigation.”

Researchers first surveyed the adults in the Crownpoint and Shiprock Native American communities in New Mexico for gardening behaviors and nutrition intake before they started gardening workshops, which taught participants how to grow fresh food and vegetables. After those workshops, they were surveyed again to see whether vegetation intake and gardening behavior changed. Later, they focused on integrating gardening more into the local curriculum by planting a garden next to a school, which served both parents and kids.

“[We want them] to develop good behaviors early in their life,” Ornelas said. “We get them to try and eat fresh food and vegetables more when they are young and hope they can do so in their whole life.”

Kassia Rudd, a research assistant at Fred Hutch and a UW master’s student, helped set up curriculum instruction focusing on food systems for the program. After reading papers, surveys, and transcripts of interviews with local people, Rudd helped develop methodologies for the study, compiled information into actual educational resources, and prepared proposals for gardening and nutrition curriculums.

“I am particularly interested in food access and gardening education,” Rudd said. “I was very excited when [being] told about the project. There are elements of research while you are experimenting and modifying — there is direct application and result.”

For Rudd, the most meaningful aspect of the field work was when a pair of locals started sharing pictures of their garden’s condition and telling her about potential improvements they wanted to make in their garden.

“The engagement with people was really meaningful,” Rudd said. “I would love to do similar things in the future professionally [and] to be able to help develop curriculum with various community goals in mind … I would like to see information and skills covered in this curriculum be translated into the homes of participants rather than just staying in the school.”

Through encouragement and education in gardening, Ornelas hopes health conditions will improve and risk of diseases will decrease among native communities.

“What we are hoping is that they will start to garden more at their own homes,” Ornelas said. “Through gardening, they will have more food and vegetables and eat them more. That will improve their health because it will decrease their risk of obesity, diabetes, and potentially cancer.” 


See clips of the Yeego Gardening program in action. 


Reach reporter Zezhou Jing at Twitter: @Zz_Jing

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