A Push to Improve Food Choices in Native American Communities Gets a Big Boost

For Native Americans, improving food choices is not about adding additional menu items at a buffet; it is about addressing some of the most dire health issues they face. According to the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Minority Health, nearly four-fifths of Native American men and almost two-thirds of Native American women are overweight. More than 80 percent of people with type 2 diabetes are also overweight.

Diabetes is becoming so pervasive that we often overlook the consequences of excess blood glucose. Since much of a body's aging is caused by glycation—the bonding of a protein molecule with a sugar molecule—diabetics age faster and exhibit the signs and symptoms of aging earlier than others. According to the National Institutes of Health, “If you have diabetes, you are at least twice as likely as someone who does not have diabetes to have heart disease or a stroke.”  

About one-sixth of Native Americans have diabetes, the highest percentage of any U.S. ethnic group, while fully half of the adult Pima Indians of Arizona suffer from this dreaded disease.

Excess weight is also a risk factor for high blood pressure and high cholesterol, major causes of heart disease and stroke.

Among Native Americans, the problem starts early. According to the Food and Nutrition Service, between a third and half of Native American children are now obese. American Indian children between the ages of 10 and 19 have type 2 diabetes at a rate that is 9 times more than that of whites, according to Food Safety News.

Poverty is a major contributor to the problem. According to the U.S. Census, 27 percent of Native Americans live in poverty, the highest rate of any U.S. ethnic group. Healthier food like whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables cost more than unhealthier choices.

The W.K. Kellogg Foundation was founded by Will Keith Kellogg, the inventor of the toasted corn flake. He was a Seventh Day Adventist who was a fervent vegetarian and lived to the age of 91. Through the end of 2017, the foundation will supply the First Nations Development Institute in Colorado a $2.9 million grant to “Improve the health of Native children and benefit economic health of families and communities by advancing strategies to build and strengthen local and systemic food system infrastructure in Native American communities.”

Kellogg and the First Nations Development Institute go way back. The foundation first supported the organization in 1998, and made its first grant to the group for work on food systems in 2001. Kellogg has clearly stuck with the food funding, and its latest grant is renewal of a two-year grant the foundation made in 2012. But Kellogg has also supported other kinds of work by First Nations to boost Native American communities. Last year, for example, it made a grant to advance asset building strategies in Native communities. 

On the food front, a key part of First Nations’ work has been to increase Native American food security through community gardens, food banks and food pantries. It has also developed a curriculum to teach Native American farmers and ranchers to employ modern practices in managing their agribusinesses.

Ironically, the traditional Native American diet derived from hunting, fishing and farming was very healthy. Maybe with enough support, Native Americans can start to turn the tide when it comes to their dietsa challenge, of course, that the entire country also confronts.