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Rebuilding Our Food Traditions

With diabetes and childhood obesity rising in Native American communities and nationally, Terrol Johnson strives to reverse this by providing access to healthy, affordable and culturally-appropriate foods.

Terrol JohnsonTerrol Johnson is being honored as a Champion of Change for strengthening food security. 

Like so many communities across the country, Native Americans are suffering from a lack of access to healthy, affordable and culturally-appropriate foods. Malnutrition can be devastating to the health of Native American communities where the problem of hunger is not that we do not get enough food; rather we get the wrong foods. 

Among the members of my own tribe, the Tohono O’odham of southern Arizona, the loss of an agricultural economy and a traditional diet has meant an epidemic of Type 2 Diabetes. In 1960, no tribal member had ever suffered from the disease; today, more than half of adults – and children as young as seven-years-old – have Diabetes, the highest rates in the world. My tribe is not alone. Native Americans suffer from a rate nearly three times the national average. However, the rest of the country is quickly catching up; diabetes and childhood obesity rates are skyrocketing nationally. 

Behind these statistics is real human suffering. I have seen my own grandfather, aunts and sister all die due to complications of Diabetes. And I too have the disease. 

Despite these sobering realities, at Tohono O’odham Community Action (TOCA), we have been planting and nourishing the seeds of change for more than 15 years. Working with tribal elders and youth, we have struggled to revitalize a local food system that contributes to community health, economic development and cultural revitalization. Drawing upon the strength of the O’odham Himdag  – the Desert People’s Lifeways – we have looked to our heritage to create solutions for tomorrow. TOCA has created two farms to once again produce the traditional foods that kept us healthy for countless generations. With USDA support, we are training a new generation of O’odham farmers to feed our people. We have introduced traditional foods into the lunches served in school cafeterias. And for the first time in decades, the sounds of our traditional planting and harvest songs ring out across the desert fields that are once again nourishing our children.

Although unique in some important ways, our struggle to create a food system that keeps our bodies, minds, culture and economies strong is shared by communities throughout the United States and across the globe. Millions of people – in gardens and on farms, at farmers markets and food banks – have begun to plant the seeds of a just food system. Building upon local assets and resources – often with the assistance of Federal programs – many communities are finding their unique strengths and futures. 

There is no one solution to the need for healthy food systems; there are thousands of them, each as unique as our local communities. Innovation, creativity and passion emerge from the grassroots. By supporting these efforts – even some of the creative failures – federal programs can and are partnering to support efforts to “scale outward” rather than “scale up.” By empowering communities to build local solutions, we can and will create food systems that guarantee access to healthy, affordable, fairly-produced and culturally-appropriate food for all communities – Native and non-Native alike.

Terrol Johnson is the Co-Founder and President of Tohono O'odham Community Action (TOCA)