As we’ve mentioned in previous articles, diabetes and obesity are major problems in Native American communities. In honor of Native American Heritage Month, we’re featuring several of our very own PreventObesity.net Leaders and Supporters who are working to help Native American children become healthier.
PreventObesity.net Leader Will Conway is a service member with FoodCorps, a “nationwide team of AmeriCorps leaders who connect kids to real food and help them grow up healthy,” who works in Tuba City, Arizona, with the largest Navajo community.
Working with the Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health’s Feast for the Future program, Will helps support two educational school gardens where they teach kids all about gardening―from planting and maintaining the garden to composting. “In the gardens, the kids get to experience the reward that comes with growing their own food,” Will explains.
These lessons also translate into the classroom in the form of lessons on nutrition, reading food labels and knowing the components of a healthy meal. Hands-on time in the school garden and classroom learning are very different, but Will believes that the two types of lessons really go hand in hand.
“School gardening fosters a positive relationship between children and healthy, locally grown fruits and vegetables. In the classroom, we teach lessons on nutrition such as reading food labels and knowing the components of a healthy meal,” he notes.
It is also important to both FoodCorps and the schools they work with that Native American children are educated in Navajo culture, in particular traditional Navajo foods and recipes, and have made that a major focus of their partnership.
“We seek to incorporate traditional Navajo culture into our gardens and our lessons. We grow traditional foods and teach the cultural importance of these foods, often times bringing in elders to work with the kids. We help kids understand how to receive the nutrition needed for a healthy lifestyle from a diet of traditional foods. In the future, we hope to have the produce grown in the school gardens served in the cafeteria,” Will says.
At the end of the growing season, the program sends home students with bags of vegetables like tomatoes and chilies that the kids grow throughout the year. One of his victories, he notes, is that each week students return asking for more tomatoes and chilies to pick.
And often, students’ families will gratefully reach out to thank him for his work, and to share memories of growing their own food when they were children and concern about how they see less and less of that now.
“Bringing gardening back to the children and making an impact on a community level has been my biggest accomplishment,” he says with pride. “The kids I work with every day and have worked with in the past inspire me to provide them with the opportunity for a healthy future.”