U, tribe aim to improve Native diets

U, tribe aim to improve Native diets

Charlie Bartlett

Health problems tied to poor diets and nutrition have persistently plagued Native American communities across the country. 
 
To help alleviate this issue, the University of Minnesota is partnering with the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community in its $5 million “Seeds of Native Health” campaign to improve the health and nutrition of indigenous people nationwide.
 
Research has shown that poor nutrition has led to increased rates of obesity, diabetes and chronic health problems in Native communities.
 
Diabetes is one of the leading causes of death among American Indians and Alaska Natives, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Minority Health.
 
The campaign will address these issues by improving health programs that are already in place and funding new research to identify what types of programs could be created
to alleviate the health disparities, said SMSC secretary and treasurer Lori Watso, who championed the idea for the campaign.
 
She said she hopes individual Native communities will then use the programs and apply them to their specific health needs.
 
Watso said her background in public health and education, along with the work she’s done related to healthy food in her community, has given her an insight into the health issues Native communities are facing, especially regarding their diets.
 
“Through all of that work, I’ve seen firsthand the detrimental effects of poor nutrition,” she said. “I’ve really come to believe that our nutrition is the foundation for everything.”
 
Lori Watso said SMSC selected the University as a partner because of the school’s work in related research and ability to better understand issues at a national level.
 
College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resources Sciences Dean Brian Buhr said the college has worked with the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community in the past.
 
The school has also done nutrition-related research and programming across diverse populations, and Buhr said he hopes CFANS can use that research as a starting point in the partnership.
 
He said the University’s role in the campaign will likely be to research strategies to improve Native nutrition and assist in planning a series of annual conferences on the topic.
 
Though Buhr said the partnership’s specifics are yet to be defined, he said the  University has started identifying and uniting people who are doing similar research.
 
 “[Change] does require true partnership,” Buhr said. “I think that’s the exciting part — is to have that opportunity to think about how we can really work together to create some solutions to this.”
 
In addition to partnering with the University, SMSC is working with nonprofit organizations First Nations Development Institute and the Notah Begay III Foundation. Both have a history of working to solve nationwide Native health issues.
 
First Nations Development Institute President Michael Roberts said his Colorado-based organization has a large portfolio in food systems initiatives and a history of research and policymaking. In 2012, the nonprofit gave out $905,000 in grants to organizations aimed at improving health in Native communities.
 
SMSC secretary and treasurer Watso said she’s hopeful that the campaign will finally begin to address some of the issues that have been present in Native communities for many years.
 
“Native people are so disproportionately affected in all health and socio-economic indicators,” she said. “And if we can improve nutrition, then we can address some of these acute — and especially the chronic — health problems that Native communities face every day.”