Food as Medicine on the Navajo Nation

This Native-run coronavirus relief effort could help the Navajo Nation become more resilient over the long term.



In March, when COVID-19 closed down the schools in Kayenta, Arizona—just 25 miles from Chilchinbito, home to the first known case on the Navajo Nation—the school district enlisted its bus drivers to get meals out to its 2,000 students.

“After spring break, they delivered food for three days,” said Lemual Adson, the superintendent of Kayenta Unified Schools, in a recent phone call. “They went out Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and then on Thursday, the Indian Health Service called me and ordered us to stop.” The risk of contagion was just too great.

At around the same time, the community adopted a stay-at-home order and a curfew. Soon, several employees across the district began to get sick with COVID-19 and, within weeks, two of the bus drivers who had delivered the meals had passed away.

In the two months since then, the community—like many on the Navajo Nation and in Native communities impacted across the country—has essentially been shut down. Most of the small businesses people relied on to get by have closed, and cases of COVID-19 still appear to be on the rise.

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“It has hit us pretty hard,” said Adson, the exhaustion in his voice palpable. “The people here are traumatized both by sickness and economically. There’s a lot of anxiety and frustration.”

Food support in the community has been a trickle, and although the district has finally resumed its meals program, that food will only go so far.

“We can’t send perishable food because there are families with no electricity [i.e., refrigeration]. And what those people do typically is buy nonperishables and few refrigerated foods and then they have to make constant runs to the store,” said Adson. In recent months, however, those runs to the store have been rare, if not impossible.

Then, last week, Superintendent Adson received a surprising call from a woman named Chenoa Bah Stilwell-Jensen, asking if Kayenta could use a shipment of shelf-stable foods.

He welcomed the idea.

Delivering food to the Navajo Nation. (Photo © Nate Lemuel)

Volunteers receive food in Kayenta, Arizona. Photo by Nate Lemuel of Darklisted Photography.

“It’s all dry, and you just have to prepare it at home with some water,” said Adson. In other words, he added, it’s exactly what the families in community need to get through the coming weeks.

Stilwell-Jensen is a cultural care provider and case manager at First Nations Community HealthSource, an Albuquerque-based nonprofit that works with a wide range of communities, including those who come in from remote parts of New Mexico and Arizona for care and support. She’s also part of a group of Diné, or Navajo, women who have formed an ad-hoc network in hopes of finding a solution to the region’s food crisis.

“We’re all moms, and we knew the government response just wasn’t going to be fast enough,” said Amy Yeung, Stilwell-Jensen’s collaborator and an Albuquerque-based designer and entrepreneur with experience working on global supply chains. She, Stilwell-Jensen, and the other women they’re working with felt called to act immediately.

As a result, nearly 10,000 individual packages of food—including rice, beans, trail mix, and protein shakes—made its way to Kayenta on Tuesday, just over a week after Stilwell-Jensen first placed the call.

“When we heard from the superintendent we said, ‘Okay, what do we need to do? How many kids? We’ll get food boxes there by next week,” said Yeung. “So we raised around $19,000 over the weekend and placed a purchase order [on Tuesday].”

A Collaboration Takes Shape

Back in March, as the numbers of COVID-19 cases on the Navajo Nation started rising, and the scale of the crisis came into focus, Yeung responded by making PPE. She had relocated from L.A. to New Mexico last year to be closer to her extended Diné family and to open a brick-and-mortar location for her high-end upcycled clothing brand Orenda Tribe, but she set a portion of her business aside to jump into the relief effort.

After working for decades in the fast fashion business, Yeung had already built the network needed to get masks made for communities that needed them. And it quickly became apparent that food was just as crucial as PPE in some places.

With help from the NDN Collective as a fiscal sponsor and close collaborative relationships with the Navajo & Hopi Families COVID-19 Relief Fund and Dr. Michelle Tom, a former Arizona State University basketball player who is working with COVID-positive patients, Yeung has developed an ever-widening plan to help feed not only school kids but also Diné people who are sick, quarantining, and recovering in hotels around the region.

Photo by Nate Lemuel of Darklisted Photography.

Canned foods are a typical solution in scenarios like this, but they can also be incredibly heavy in large quantities, and therefor a challenge to transport and distribute. “We have a solid supply of lightweight, shelf-stable, non-GMO, nutrient-dense meals for this community. Now we just need help paying for them,” said Yeung.

So far, she has used her sizable Instagram following to raise more than $75,000 by auctioning off the work of close to 100 artists, artisans, and clothing designers from around the country. In addition to PPE, those funds have so far gone to buy over 65,000 meals or 4 tons of dehydrated food, which will amount to closer to 10 tons once its prepared. And it’s clear that they’re just getting started.

Stilwell-Jensen has been making calls to the areas hardest hit by the virus, as well as what she calls the “quiet areas”—or places where outbreaks have begun but haven’t received media attention.

And while World Central Kitchen, the international relief effort spearheaded by celebrity chef José Andrés, has been shipping out food to parts of the region for the past few weeks, local, Native-run efforts like Yeung’s—and a number of others like it—have the potential to have a different kind of impact—one that may help the Navajo Nation become more resilient over the long term.

“We have a systematic breakdown in how everything’s being managed,” said Yeung over Zoom recently. “Chenoa has yet to make call to somebody [who] has said they’ve actually received aid.”

Jade Begay, creative director of NDN Collective—which has so far distributed $2.5 million to 95 tribal nations and indigenous organizations across 23 states—echoes this sentiment. “We knew how slowly federal dollars would move to tribes. Some tribes are still waiting for funding . . . so there’s just a ton of bureaucracy there.”

Begay points to the fact that there are only 13 full-service grocery stores on the 27,000-square mile Navajo Nation. And as a result, many Diné people rely heavily on convenience stores. “Food from a convenience store can only support their immune system so much,” she said.

“What Amy is doing by providing this nutrient-dense food with shelf life is really important,” added Begay. “It provides a long-term solution for some families. It helps them stay home. It helps them reduce their travel and reduce contact with people needing to go to the grocery store.”

Amy Yeung, photographed by Pierre Manning.

Finding the Right Food

The key to the food boxes Yeung is providing is a little-known California-based company called Fresh Start Natural Foods. The company produces a line of lightweight, just-add-water foods including several kinds of rice and beans, protein shakes, granola, and oatmeal.

The foods are sold in military and federal prison commissaries, where they provide a healthy alternative to instant noodles and candy bars. Unfortunately, lockdowns and relocations have made it difficult for some inmates to buy the products.

“They’re moving the sick inmates to federal medical centers and they’re moving the healthy ones to other facilities around the country,” said Fresh Start owner Sally Petersen. So, for the first time, she has had to think about alternative markets. All the ingredients are sourced in the U.S., and a number of them are organic. And because she’s sold all the food to the federal government in large quantities, Peterson has been able to keep prices low.

“I’ve been in business for 25 years, and over the last two weeks, we’ve learned of a whole new group of people that are in need of what it is that we have,” said Petersen, who was running a health food store in the Bay Area until 1993, when she discovered a gap in the institutional market that no one else was filling.

In addition to making up for lost sales, Peterson hopes to be able to meet some of the growing demand for shelf-stable food from food banks in response to the nation’s record unemployment rates. But knowing that she has just the right solution for the Navajo Nation is a great starting point.

“It makes me feel so good to be able to help them,” said Petersen, who has hired a new employee just to help get the food out to other Indigenous communities facing rising rates of infection and has taken on extra stock to meet the coming need.

Chenoa Bah Stilwell-Jensen holding packets of Fresh Start Natural Food.

Returning to ‘Food From the Earth’

Dehydrated rice and beans may not sound revolutionary, but for Stilwell-Jensen, who spent part of her childhood with her grandparents on the Navajo Nation, it’s a step toward decolonizing Indigenous diets.

“When we heard about Fresh Start, we thought, ‘This is what our people need,’” she said, tracing the current rates of dietary illness among many Indigenous communities to government rations, forced assimilations, and the introduction of highly processed white flour. “That’s what has really caused an epidemic of diabetes in our communities,” she adds.

Stilwell-Jensen points to a recent news story about members of the nearby Zuni Nation and other community members who quarantined in hotel rooms arranged by the New Mexico Department of Health; they were given bologna sandwiches and hot dogs while they tried to heal from COVID.

The food kits that she and her co-workers have been distributing at the various programs First Nation Community HealthSource runs in Albuquerque and in the surrounding area, on the other hand, will last for a week or two, and are designed to be nutritious. And she and Yeung are working within an ever-widening network of Diné women to get them in the right hands.

In one recent example, a physician at a clinic in Arizona who is working with COVID-19 patients asked for 500 protein shakes. “The boxes were hand-delivered by one of my sisters,” said Stilwell-Jensen. “She drove all the way in from Arizona to pick up this box and then hand deliver them.” The idea is to be able to give the shakes to people as soon as they’re discharged from the hospital.

This food-as-medicine approach isn’t new at First Nation Community HealthSource. Before—and since—the pandemic, it has been core to the work that Stilwell-Jensen and her colleagues have done as they integrate native cultural traditions into their telehealth and wellness practices.

A community garden at First Nations Community HealthSource. 

The Traditional Wellness/Integrative Care Program where Stilwell-Jensen works includes traditional ceremonies and talking circles. The organization also runs a mobile food program, a garden, and has long provided food runs for those living in remote areas. Throughout, much of the work is focused on returning to sacred foods.

“We honor the four sacred plants: corn, squash, beans, and mountain medicine,” said Stilwell-Jensen. “And from there we are able to talk about the cultural values of these plants. Some of our traditional clans are connected to foods as well. Your family might come from the Yucca Fruit Clan; my grandfather’s clan is Salt Clan. It’s much more than just nourishment physically from food; it’s about cultural identity and traditional sustainment of values and really honoring a holistic way of life from a cultural and spiritual perspective as well as a medicinal one.”

Stilwell-Jensen acknowledges that shelf-stable food isn’t a long-term solution—and the fact that 40 percent of the Native communities in the region don’t have running water has to change for the Diné to thrive.

“Those limitations can cause disruptions in how someone can heal through an illness like COVID-19, but also how do they thrive after they’ve healed and continue to live a healthy life,” she said. “So, the larger struggles and challenges are really looking at how do we build the infrastructure that’s needed; how do we get water to these communities so that they can grow their own corn, squash, and beans again?”

And yet Yeung believes that crowd-funding efforts like hers will play a necessary role in the weeks and months ahead. When Superintendent Adson fielded their call two weeks ago, she added, she could hear his voice shift.

“He said, ‘This is such good news,’ and you could tell there was this good energy within him now that he’d be able share something of light and hope with his community,” said Yeung, who adds that receiving help from people making donations from all around the world is going to be a regular part of the recovery process.

In order to keep providing food for families over the summer, she hopes to raise $500,000. It’s not a small amount, and the work can be exhausting. But Yeung is buoyed by the connections she has formed over the last few months. “It’s really a sisterhood of the most amazing Diné women—all working together to respond where it’s most needed,” she said.

Yeung and Stilwell-Jensen both hope to see other folks begin to distribute Petersen’s food, on the Navajo Nation and beyond.

“I love what folks like World Central Kitchen are doing. But they’re not going to be out there every week. And I know that the Navajo infrastructure is not going to change by July, or by November,” said Yeung. “People are going to be living in this rustic situation through the winter, and this food will help so many people during that time.”

 

Top Photo: Superintendent Lamuel Adson and Dr. Victoria Yazzie of the Kayenta School District. Photo by Nate Lamuel of Darklisted Photography

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  1. Thursday, June 25th, 2020
    Hello Good People.
    I would like to connect with you
    I publish Indian Voices and would like to be of assistance in promoting your program and getting the word out.
    Would you consider doing an article for the next issue?
    Best regards,
    Rose Davis
    Publisher
    Indian Voices
    www.indianvoices.net