A Complex Problem Needs a Complex Solution

By Lauren Burke, FoodCorps service member

American children are hungry. To be exact: 13.1 million children under the age of 18. In a country famous for its excesses — big cars, big homes, big burgers — our children are not getting enough to eat. On Native American reservations, like the Hopi reservation where I live and serve as a FoodCorps service member, rates of food insecurity and child hunger are up to two times higher than the rest of the country. On the 2,500-square-mile Hopi reservation, there are only a handful of stores that stock fresh fruits and vegetables, and transportation and storage costs drive up their prices. Combined with the increased cost of produce and other healthy foods, widespread economic depression makes eating healthy an often-unrealistic goal compared to cheap, low-nutrient “junk” foods. Low-nutrient diets manifest in the skyrocketing rates of diet-related illnesses such as obesity, heart disease, and diabetes – all of which are increasingly being linked to hunger. Nutrition education programs aimed at addressing the epidemic of diet-related illness, child hunger, and food insecurity on the reservation are failing to provide results. Here’s why:

The desolate food landscape and visibility of child hunger on Native American reservations are neither coincidence nor pure genetics. Rather, they are reverberations of years of violent colonization and oppression. One need not look further than the legacy of Native American boarding schools to get a swift introduction to the types of injustices that took and continue to take place. Today, much of that explicit violence has shifted to implicit violence, such as the subtle erasure of culture from curriculum. The subject of nutrition is no exception. Reservation cafeterias are subject to a variety of restrictions, from food group requirements to calorie and fat gram limitations. In theory, these guidelines ensure that children receive and learn about proper nutrition, thereby providing them with a ladder with which to climb out of hunger. However, on the Hopi reservation, many of the given standards are incompatible with a traditional diet, and unrealistic considering limited finances. To those living here, it is obvious that those regulations were not created with Hopi children in mind, and therefore aren’t teaching Hopi children the full significance and meaning of food.

As a non-Hopi, the significance of Hopi food is not my story to tell. However, I have noticed an obvious, inherent understanding that food is not singular, that it can’t be broken down solely into calories and groups and grams. On Hopi, conversations on food are not separate from conversations on cultural identity and sovereignty. As my Hopi supervisor puts it, “Food plays a large part in identifying who we are. Growing in this high desert climate…that’s what we’re known for. That’s how we’ve survived and will survive.”

This acknowledgement of food as non-singular points out a critical error in the teaching of nutrition in schools. If nutrition education in schools is to truly help dig our nation’s children out of hunger, it must focus less on the deductive(breaking food down into calories, fat grams, food groups) and more on the constructive (food as intersectional, as identity, culture, and life). The ladder that is given to children with deductive nutrition education is not nearly tall enough to mount the wall of colonialism, economic depression, and geographic isolation enmeshed in reservation food systems. We must help to break that wall down while still providing the leverage to climb it.

So, then, what does constructive nutrition look like? First: it’s messy. Constructive nutrition acknowledges the complexity of food, and dares to allow children to explore meanings of food beyond quantitative measurements. It teaches contextualized science, empowered science. It gives students knowledge of not only what is scientific fact, but the story of how those facts came to be, and why they are valued. Constructive nutrition recognizes that hunger, poverty, and illness are inseparable, and collaborates with unexpected partners to address not one but all three factors. Constructive nutrition works to build not only healthy bodies, but also healthy food systems and healthy communities.

Secondly, constructive nutrition is place-specific. It acknowledges the union of food, people, and cultural history. It breaks down the oppressive history of white-generated nutrition standards by allowing for the creation of alternative nutrition narratives. Constructive nutrition builds up culturally significant foods rather than reducing them down to quantitative data. Constructive nutrition is in the hands of the people.

Lastly, constructive nutrition is constantly questioning, re-evaluating, and asking itself how it can do better. Much of the above description of constructive nutrition is easier said than done. However, this should not and cannot be a deterrent to working towards it. In Moenkopi, Arizona, where I serve along with one other, we strive towards just, constructive nutrition by using the FoodCorps framework while finding ways to make it relevant to Hopi children. We acknowledge our limits, specifically my limits as anon-Hopi, and FoodCorps’ limits as a non-Hopi organization, and constantly reevaluate the work that we do.

As a national organization, FoodCorps is listening. They have offered native-led workshops at trainings, and are planning on incorporating more native community-specific workshops at future trainings. With a focus on growing and cooking healthy food, FoodCorps’ suggested curriculum is already more constructive, less deductive, than most. This is promising for their capacity to affect lasting change against food injustice and child hunger; other nutrition- and food-focused programs should follow suit. However, it is not enough. FoodCorps and other programs that want to truly participate in teaching constructive nutrition, in affecting lasting change in food systems, must constantly strive to be better, more inclusive, and more diverse. They must strive not only to serve native communities, but also to allow those communities to construct the programming of the future.

American children are hungry. Native American children are hungrier. The deductive nutrition education of old has failed them. Food is complex, immensely complex, and our solutions to food-related problems must match that complexity. Constructive nutrition education — nutrition education that acknowledges the complexity of food, defines itself as place-specific, and constantly self-evaluates – is lurking just beyond, or perhaps within the current framework. It is the solution that we desperately need. Are we willing enough to take it on?

FoodCorps Service Member Lauren Burke won the 2017 FoodCorps Victory Growers Award “for a compelling account of hunger and food insecurity,” winning a $5,000 prize for her service site, Moencopi Developers Corporation in Tuba City, AZ. The award, sponsored by C&S Wholesale Grocers, highlights that many children struggle with hunger and food insecurity, and that the food they receive at school is the most important meal they will get all day.