Planting Seeds Of Health On Navajo Nation

Jun 9, 2016

Reverend Deacon Leon Sampson stands at the edge of the 4-acre community farm he oversees at the St. Christopher Episcopal Mission in Bluff, Utah.
Credit K. Munson

The Homer Dale Community Farm is more than a 4-acre garden on the fringe of Navajo Nation in southern Utah.

For the last six years, Leon Sampson, reverend deacon for the St. Christopher Episcopal Mission in Bluff, has cultivated the community farm as a place where people can reconnect to their farming roots and learn new skills. For Sampson, growing one’s own food is an act of economic empowerment. It’s also a way for older generations to share their knowledge with Navajo youth.

“A lot of times you’ll see that that’s what’s needed. Now we get so relaxed into [making] ready-made food and preservatives that it’s just taking over who we are as people, and those teachings are getting lost," he said. "So we’re creating that same space for the elders to come and teach the kids, not only practice of farming and eating healthy, but also, traditional ways of praying.”

About a dozen families plant crops each year at the farm. Some people come just to sit and pull weeds. They tell Sampson it’s therapeutic. A court diversion program sends individuals to maintain a plot on the site as a way of fulfilling community service hours. Sampson has witnessed how important the garden has been for both children in other families and his own children.

“They had that connection; they had this idea of growing something, taking care of it, and having themselves in it, showing that this is what they produced," Sampson said. "There’s a whole spirituality between that.”

The Homer Dale Community Farm provides residents of Navajo Nation with an opportunity to grow their own food and cultivate new skills.
Credit K.Munson

Lauren Hannibal has been working with Sampson to find out what it takes to establish a community garden in the desert. She is dietician with the Utah Navajo Health System, Inc. and many of her patients are diabetic. Starting a community garden in Montezuma Creek is part of a multi-pronged effort Hannibal is involved with to help people prevent and manage chronic diseases.

“People want to make changes. People tell me all the time they want to eat better, they just don’t feel like they have the means or the ability to eat better," she said. "It’s going to take a while to change that thought process like we can grow our own food, we do have the ability to eat better.”

At a restaurant in Bluff serving freezer-burned, half-wilted salads, Hannibal says many people’s diets are high in processed, refined foods because that is what’s available close to them. Most people don’t make weekly grocery trips because that’s gas money they can’t afford. She sees patients who don’t have electricity, running water, or refrigeration at their homes, which adds another layer to the challenges of storing perishables after the long drive home.

“When you don’t have access to food and most of your food is carbohydrate, and a lot of it is refined carbs too, or things that have a lot of sugar in it, it makes the diet part extremely difficult,” Hannibal said.

Another obstacle for residents receiving food assistance benefits such as WIC or SNAP is finding a place where they can actually use the vouchers.

“We’re so close to Arizona and we are so close to New Mexico or Colorado, but if you get WIC benefits you can’t go to Walmart in Colorado because it’s Utah-based,” Hannibal said.

That’s why it’s critical for convenience store, gas stations and trading posts on the reservation to stock their shelves with healthy food items. A fruit and vegetable prescription program expanding across Navajo Nation called Community Outreach and Patient Empowerment, or COPE, connects local growers with area businesses and incentivizes stores to carry fresh produce by taking away the risk of stocking items that won’t sell. The goal is to create a sustainable program. For Hannibal, it's about creating a culture of health on the reservation.

“If we start making that connection where what we eat really does matter and impacts our life in ways that we really didn’t realize, then maybe that will start the wheels turning and changes start to happen,” she said.

This is the second of a two-part series on food deserts in the desert. Listen to the first story.