The Notal Begay III Foundation (NB3F), Let's Move! in Indian Country and the Indian Health Service (IHS) take different approaches to achieve a similar agenda: to end childhood obesity and restore the health of Native communities.
Last month, the three organizations formed an unprecedented collaboration to create bridges between the programs, enabling them to leverage their resources and share best practices.
“There's cross-over in our work,” said Notah Begay III, of the Navajo , San Felipe Pueblo and Isleta Pueblo tribes; the first Native American to compete on the Professional Golf Association (PGA) Tour; four-time PGA Tour winner; and current NBC golf analyst, entrepreneur and philanthropist. “If we can utilize all our intellectual resources and existing pools of data, it will enable everybody to move forward together. Our end points are the same. This sets an amazing precedent for all Native wellness programs.”
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On November 12, the NB3 Foundation, Let's Move! in Indian Country (LMIC) and the IHS signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) at the White House to join forces to tackle the health crisis facing Native children.
“It allows us to be in more places over a shorter period of time,” Begay told Indian Country Today Media Network. “It provides us with more information to guide our evidence-based model” of increasing youth access to sport and implementing community-based models to reduce the high rates of obesity, diabetes and other chronic diseases prevalent throughout Indian country.
“Notah Begay is an amazing leader, and his foundation does tremendous work,” former chef to the first family Sam Kass, who now serves as the executive director of Let’s Move! and White House senior policy advisor on nutrition, told ICTMN. “It made a lot of sense for us to formalize our relationship with NB3 and IHS.”
Kass called the new partnership “an important step towards helping Native American youth lead healthier lives. With the LMIC, we’ve seen tribal leaders engage their communities by creating food policy councils and reintroducing sports like lacrosse into schools, but we know there is more work to be done to ensure all our children have the healthy futures they deserve.”
LMIC’s food policy councils, Kass explained, “are playing out differently in every community. We need to develop real infrastructure to address the pressing needs of communities and to ensure healthy food is available for all families. We also need to provide better access to affordable, traditional stapes like buffalo, which is very healthy and has deep roots in many cultures.”
That’s one area where NB3F’s expertise could come into play. “We're small and nimble. [NB3F] can get into the cracks and crevices of these communities. We're in the trenches, on the ground,” Begay said.
Every MOU partner brings its own advantages, Begay said. “IHS can evaluate from its vast data pool,” he explained.
Dr. Yvette Roubideaux, acting director of the IHS, noted, the collaboration “gives us an opportunity to identify and share best practices from all of our prevention efforts, including the successful activities and outcomes of our Special Diabetes Program for Indians grantees, to help in the fight against childhood obesity in the communities we serve.”
Meanwhile, Let’s Move! in Indian Country “is giving [NB3F] a chance to get some exposure as well as utilize other information from other underserved communities. Obesity is not just localized in Indian country. We can all learn from each other,” Begay said.
Begay additionally applauded First Lady Michelle Obama’s enthusiasm for reducing childhood obesity and the exposure she has brought to the issue in Native communities. “For the majority of history, Indian country has been overlooked as relates to health education, infrastructure, politics and economic development. This is an opportunity for the White House and Indian country to demonstrate how differences can be made in poor areas in dire need of change.”
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The parties are working together to reverse an epidemic that is threatening the very future of Native people. Obesity is a risk factor for many chronic diseases, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer, which are among the leading causes of death for American Indians and Alaska Natives.
“Childhood obesity in Indian country is a crisis,” Begay told ICTMN. “Our kids need to know they're not condemned to contract Type 2 diabetes in their lifetime. But if things don't change, there's a 75 percent chance they will—and that's a very hard sentence to live with as a young kid.
“As a young Native kid, they already know they’re sentenced to live in poverty-stricken communities with low rates of high school graduation, and outside gaming, not many professional job opportunities available, and health and other services all underfunded.
“This is something the next generation can control in their lives. They can live happier, healthier lives,” Begay said. “If we encourage them to pursue this path, we will create stronger, healthier leaders.”
Jointly, the organizations have “no distinct plans right now,” Begay said, “but there is definite interest by all parties to create events to expand our reach. We were, I guess, just [grinding] teeth and biting nails to get the agreement in place initially, because without that, it’s hard to work together in an official capacity. Now we have many opportunities to best utilize our respective specialties.”
In August, NB3F launched a new national center focused on reversing childhood obesity across Indian country. The national initiative, Native Strong: Healthy Kids, Healthy Futures, is focused on strategic grant making, research and mapping, capacity building, and advocacy to combat type 2 diabetes and obesity among Native American children.
In early fall 2013, NB3F issued a request for proposals for grants through Native Strong: Healthy Kids, Healthy Futures. (The next request for proposals will take place in April; for more information visit http://nb3foundation.org/grant-seekers-overview.html.) The nonprofit received an overwhelming response—80 applications from Tribal communities and Native nonprofits who applied for funding to strengthen existing youth-focused physical activity and/or healthy nutrition programs and to build capacity for program evaluation.
“It was a phenomenal response, which demonstrates their need for technical assistance, funding, and any sort of guidance that they can get,” Begay said.
Begay views the MOU as a necessity to maximize the reach and impact of the NB3F national center. “[I]t is vital that effective strategies and best practices are accessible for all Native communities, so together we can turn the tide on childhood obesity and type 2 diabetes,” he said.