“When you talk about gardens and food, you touch a light in people, a hope, a promise, a truth,” says Kristen Speakman, MA, MPH ’06, Project Manager at the Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health (CAIH). “It is the cycle of life. You start with a seed—like we all once were—you have to nourish it, then it sustains you, and then it dies. It’s something that resonates with the human spirit. It touches us deeply.”
And, Speakman hopes, can have a deep impact on communities that are returning, quite literally, to their roots. The Santo Domingo Pueblo, who live along the Rio Grande in New Mexico, have a long tradition of agriculture. One largely abandoned to modern times, modern foods, and the modern epidemics of obesity and diabetes.
Now the Santo Domingo and two other Southwest tribal communities, including the Navajo Nation in Tuba City and White Mountain Apache, are returning to that heritage through a program called Edible School Garden, part of a larger nutrition program called Feast for the Future run by the CAIH under the guidance of a “Community Visioning” advisory board in each community. For three years, students have been working in the greenhouse, open-air classroom, and raised beds built into the participating school's courtyards. They are growing traditional crops including melon, corn, and chilies, and unfamiliar crops, including okra, broccoli, and spinach.
“The goals are ultimately to reduce the incidence of obesity and diabetes,” says Speakman.
American Indian children have the highest obesity and diabetes rates in the U.S. It is projected that one third will be obese before adulthood without intervention. The root causes are a sentinel for all Americans and the world. Extreme rates of poverty drive food insecurity—a factor linked to both diabetes and obesity. Further, forced lifestyle changes away from healthy traditions such as gardening and low fat, energy-rich foods, such as wild game, fish, nuts, fruits, wild greens, and berries have been replaced with processed, energy-inefficient convenience foods. Greater understanding of effective interventions to improve healthy food access and reduce risk factors for obesity and diabetes is urgent for American Indians and the world.
“You have to start somewhere. This is intuitive.” Though, in the public health model, intuition isn’t sufficient. Indeed, it is suspect. “So much harm has been done with good intentions,” says Speakman. “We want to make sure this program is done right and is effective.”
Which is why the garden, its science-based curriculum for third, fourth, and fifth graders, and its component of co-teaching by community elders, is being rigorously evaluated before it can be “packaged” for dissemination to other tribal communities. The team is looking for evidence of improved knowledge about, attitude toward, and behavior regarding access to healthy foods and healthy eating and connection to traditional agricultural practices
Preliminary data looks promising. As does the anecdotal. Some students have even transplanted their gardening skills from school to home. Kaitlin Mosley, senior research program coordinator, says the students seem more relaxed and attentive in their outdoor classroom. “There was a boy at one of the schools who was totally shut down, he wouldn’t talk to anyone,” says Speakman. “He came into the garden program and just blossomed. This program is healing work.”