The stories ranged from a cautionary tale of a grocery store on the Rosebud reservation stocked with white breads and potato chips to the inspirational example of a family-owned store in Baltimore, Maryland owned by an African-American couple who refuse to sell soda.
During the first Turning the Tide for Native American Children Health Forum on August 26 at Turning Stone Resort Casino, in Verona, New York, Wilson Pipestem said about childhood obesity, “This is an enemy that we have to identify.” He quoted his grandfather Chief Francis Pipestem, who said, “If you don’t find us an enemy, we’ll fight each other.”
The forum featured a panel of seven individuals from tribal leaders to government officials and private sector organizers who are working with the Notah Begay III Foundation to move the discussion of childhood obesity in Indian country forward.
Panelists included Ray Halbritter, Oneida Nation representative and CEO of Nation Enterprises, parent company of Indian Country Today Media Network; Jefferson Keel, Lt. Governor of Chickasaw Nation and president of the National Congress of American Indians; Jasmine Hall-Ratliff, program officer for The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation; Olivia Roanhorse, National Initiative director for NB3; Jodi Gillette, senior policy advisor for Native American Affairs, Domestic Policy Council for the White House; Carter Headrick, director of state and local obesity policy for the Voices for Healthy Kids Project of the American Heart Association; and Jackie Blackbird, North America N7 Program/partnership manager at Nike N7 Fund.
NB3 board chairman Wilson Pipestem was the moderator.
During the forum it was announced that the NB3 Foundation will kick off a new national initiative in September that will expand its fight against childhood obesity and type 2 diabetes for Native children. The expansion will focus on investment research, grant-making, technical assistance and advocacy for Native communities in the Southwest (New Mexico, Arizona); the Upper Midwest (Minnesota, Wisconsin); and the Southern Plains (Oklahoma, Texas). This initiative was made possible by a $1.5 million seed investment by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, one of the nation’s largest health foundations.
As the panel discussed the major concerns of childhood obesity in Indian country, a few key items seemed to be on everyone’s minds: awareness, consistency and access.
Hall-Ratliff pointed out that childhood obesity is on the decline or holding steady throughout the country, with 18 states showing a decline in the latest CDC report. However, as Roanhorse pointed out, that statistic is far from the truth in Indian country, where childhood obesity is still on the rise.
Headrick cited some statistics about Indian country, including the fact that cardiovascular disease is the number one killer in the Native community – 20 percent higher than the general population–and a third of the Native population that dies of cardiovascular disease does so before the age of 65.
The Voices for Healthy Kids Project Headrick represents through the American Heart Association is a partnership with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation; it focuses on six items to improve the lives of children and decrease childhood obesity throughout Indian country. The focal points are: access to healthy foods; school food improvement; improving food marketing; providing healthy drink alternatives; after school programs; and improving the way communities are designed.
Awareness and consistency come from a plan oftentimes in need of funding. Keel mentioned the need to build a strong infrastructure. “The only way we can really raise the level [of awareness] is to invest in education awareness,” he said.
As shown by that Rosebud store, “the problem often has to do with minimal access to healthy foods or locations for safe and healthy activities,” Hall-Ratliff added.
Gillette, who advocates healthy eating and exercise, said the NB3 foundation is a key to the success of turning around childhood obesity in Indian country. She also mentioned that the Indian Health Service is currently in discussions with NB3 about a partnership given the success the foundation has built upon since 2005.
Pipestem asked the panelists to join in a conversation about what the real problems are in Indian country when it comes to childhood obesity. Some of these had already been addressed–from the lack of knowledge to lack of access–but as some in the audience pointed out there were others, like the loss of hope.
A representative for the Boys and Girls Club of Scottsdale, Arizona pointed out that the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, in his region, has the highest rate of diabetes per capita in the country. He shared that many of the kids don’t see any hope of things getting better, and in order for them to get better the message needs to stay consistent.
Benny Shendo Jr., a newly elected New Mexico State Senator, who was in the audience, said, “I’m not afraid to say it, but we’re lazy. We’ve gotten away from what we used to do.” He was referring to the traditional foods Natives ate before being introduced to commodities and other processed goods.
With the unemployment rate throughout Indian country for the most part higher than the national average, many in Indian country rely on government assistance for food. Joseph Socabasin, governor of the Passamaquoddy Tribe-Indian Township Reservation said, “I believe welfare is the root of all evil.” He went on to talk about how the welfare system promotes drug use and other negative traits within the communities.
Hall-Ratliff shared her story about that Baltimore grocery store and a young woman who was buying groceries there for her family. When the owner saw the cashier removing items from her bag–frozen pizzas, and other processed goods–the young mother looked distraught, and asked if there was an issue. The mother had $10 left of her government assistance to purchase food that she hoped would last. The store-owner, with the permission of the young woman, then proceeded to show her just how far her $10 could go with healthy foods like chicken, rice and broccoli. She also told her how to prepare it. Hall-Ratliff said this is the kind of thing that should be happening in Indian country – community activism, with a compassionate, human touch.