Newswise — The way food is produced, accessed and funded on tribal lands must be overhauled to combat the obesity and diabetes epidemics plaguing Native Americans, according to a report released Thursday.
Feeding Ourselves, a report commissioned by the American Heart Association, analyzed American Indian and Alaska Native food systems and resulting health disparities and found that Native Americans are twice as likely as the rest of the U.S. population to develop a nutrition-related health problem.
More than 80 percent of Native American adults are overweight or obese, according to the Indian Health Clinic Reporting System. Four-year-old Native American children have twice the obesity of their white counterparts, according to a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation study.
The report found that most of tribal lands are in food deserts, areas that lack access to healthy food. It detailed the historical and economic factors that have broken down the Native American food system.
American Indians in the United States have never fully recovered from being separated from native food sources and subsequent federal government food programs, according to the report.
Improving the food system must also factor the loss of culture and poverty, as well as sedentary lifestyles.
"American Indians and Alaska Natives since time immemorial have relied on our traditional foods, or First Foods, to sustain us,” said Brian Cladoosby, president of the National Congress of American Indians in Washington D.C. “The ability of Indian Country to feed itself with healthy, local, and traditional foods is not only a critical part of a strong tribal community, it's vital to tribal sovereignty.”
One solution is for Native Americans to grow food on tribal lands and sell it to the federal government as part of federal feeding programs, said Janie Hipp, an author of the report and director of the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative at the University of Arkansas School of Law in Fayetteville.
“We could use those lands to combat hunger, keep food local and alleviate hunger for tribal members regionally,” Hipp said. “When you start to think of the potential of that, it gets very exciting.”
The report also calls for more tribal control over the Native American food system, incentives for buying healthy foods and programs funded by the federal government and foundations to educate and enable Native Americans to make improvements.
Public health experts say a lack of data has prevented effective solutions.
Unless something changes, Native people will be continually left out of the conversations and strategies to address these issues, said Michael Roberts, president of the First Nations Development Institute.
“All of us who are working to improve Native nutrition must applaud the American Heart Association and the authors of this report for casting a bright light on this crisis for a wider audience,” said Charlie Vig, chairman of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community.