GALLUP – The Navajo Nation is a vast “food desert” with the majority of Dine’ people having little or no access to fresh fruits and vegetables or other healthy food.
Since 2015, New Mexico State University’s Cooperative Extension Service has been working with community leaders and families in the U.S. Highway 491 corridor, from Gallup to Shiprock, to address issues of food insecurity and poor health.
The region includes roughly 2,500 Navajo families living in rural communities organized as chapter houses. The majority of the families have limited access to healthy food due to their low income and geographical isolation.
Two Navajo corporations – Navajo Transitional Energy Company and Navajo Agricultural Products Industry – have donated funds through the NMSU Foundation for the Navajos Cultivating Success program, which will teach and demonstrate growing fruits and vegetables to Navajo residents.
NMSU College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences and Dine’ College, the Navajo Nation land-grant college, will provide technical assistance during the program.
“The Navajos Cultivating Success project is a continuation of the Market Connect project that was introduced in 2017,” said Michael Patrick, NMSU Extension community resource and economic development specialist. “During the Market Connect project we introduced backyard gardening to 12 families, a school and a community chapter house. The goal was to have these families sell their produce at growers’ markets.”
Unfortunately, extreme hot and dry weather, limited water resources and rodents resulted in total crop failure for six of the family gardens and the school garden. The remaining six families and the community garden were able to salvage a portion of their crops to be sold at farmers’ markets held at chapter houses in the region.
“The participating gardeners sold all of their produce within the first hour,” Patrick said. “They could have doubled their sales if they had more produce. This limited beginning, however, demonstrated there is interest in growing and consuming fresh vegetables and fruit in the region.”
Through the field coordination of Sharon Sandman, a Navajo community leader and gardener, the Navajos Cultivating Success project will facilitate increased access to healthy and affordable fresh fruits and vegetables through establishing gardens at three schools, two senior centers and one family’s backyard.
The gardens will be at the Twin Lake Senior Citizens Center, Tohatchi Senior Citizens Center, Ch’ooshgai Community School in Tohatchi, Newcomb Elementary School, Sanostee Day School and the Burbank family home at Buffalo Springs.
“The gardeners will participate in six workshops designed to increase their likelihood of success,” said Sandman. “The topics will include soil health, composting, weed and pest control, seed selection, planting and record keeping, irrigation and water conservation, food safety, harvesting and seed saving, and marketing and value-added activities.”
The family, school and senior center gardeners will also participate in group listening and sharing sessions, regarding their challenges, successes and best practices.
“These sessions will be great opportunities to facilitate communication across generations – seniors, parents and students – and strengthen intergenerational ties,” Sandman said.
Navajo Cultivating Success is being viewed as a pilot demonstration project that can be replicated across the Navajo Nation.