The eating culture of the Navajo people receives significant influences from its history. Many of the traditional New World foods, including potatoes, grapes, and corn, were staples of their diet before the period of European colonization.
Boiled goat, acorns, and items obtained from hunting, gathering, and farming activities were also part of the eating experience.
The current Navajo food culture is similar to what most Americans eat today, although there are some elements of tradition still found in the culinary habits of today’s families.
Food Insecurity and the Navajo Nation
Most of the Navajo people have conformed to the habits and norms of U.S. society, eating numerous processed foods with a different nutritional profile from what was typically consumed. The only exceptions to this circumstance are frybread and maize.
The issue with food in the Navajo culture is one which has close ties to poverty. Unemployment levels are high in this region, which means food deserts are common. A majority of families who live in the Nation receive some type of government support to ensure there is enough to eat.
There were only 10 supermarkets in the entire Navajo Nation in 2006-2007. Only three more opened by 2014, with almost all of them located on the border of the reservation. Many families cannot access this resource, which means the quality of their food is poor. That places this population group at a significant risk of being either overweight or obese.
Additional Health Concerns with Navajo Food
Most of the healthier food choices available to the Navajo people are only found at the supermarkets. Because convenience stores are the primary source for groceries for some families, there is no guarantee that SNAP or WIC benefits are usable at the closest shopping location.
This issue increases the risk of obesity further, evidenced by a 25% spike in this issue from 1996 to 2006.
Some traditional foods can offset this issue somewhat if the household farms corn, goats, or sheep. Goat milk helps to sustain many children over the years, but a transition to the modern American diet is taking away many families from their agricultural history.
There are many challenges to face with Navajo food and their culture of eating in the future. A good first step would be to introduce more opportunities for fresh foods to become available.