In many Southwest Native languages, there are no words for soda or its popular brands. Yet the drink has been absorbed in many traditions, often served during Pueblo feasts, community give-aways or other ceremonial events, often replacing more nutritious drinks, including water.
“Water is sacred – why don’t we drink it?” asked Andrea Pepin, Zuni Youth Enrichment Project nutrition education coordinator, during the Notah Begay III Foundation’s first Healthy Beverage Summit on February 8 tackling the issue of the high intake of sugary drinks among Native youth.
Pepin said that it was colonization that likely has made so many Native Americans think of soda as the go-to beverage. “It’s time to decolonize your drink,” she said, quoting another colleague.
Pepin was among 100 people who attended the NB3 Foundation’s summit exploring how to reduce the consumption of soda, sports, fruit drinks and other sugared beverages. The sold-out event in Albuquerque, New Mexico, was the first of three gatherings for grant recipients in Water First!, a 2.5-year project involving nine Native communities finding ways to promote water as a first choice, as well as breastfeeding. The summit provided an opportunity for the grantees to share their efforts, engage new partners and fuel NB3’s future statewide campaign.
While the high rates of obesity and diabetes have been well reported in Indian country, these diseases have reached epidemic proportions across the nation beginning in the ’80s, said Dr. Jim Krieger, executive director of Healthy Food America, a national nonprofit that uses science to drive change in policy and industry practice.
Nearly half the calories Americans consume come from what we drink, said Krieger, a summit keynote. In a 20-ounce soda, there are 15 teaspoons of sugar, and in a popular children’s packaged fruit drink there are eight teaspoons of sugar. The federally recommended limit for sugar intake for adults is less than 12 teaspoons a day and six teaspoons for children. The beverages have been linked to obesity, diabetes, tooth decay, and liver and heart disease.
“This is a serious health risk up there with tobacco,” Krieger said. “We’re drinking way too much of this stuff,” adding that sodas and other sweetened drinks have become more available and heavily marketed, especially in low-income, minority communities in the past few decades.
Native Americans especially have been disproportionately affected. In New Mexico alone, 50 percent or one out of two Native third-graders are either overweight or obese, according to the New Mexico Department of Health. In a study of Navajo youth, 86 percent of girls and 93 percent of boys were drinking a soda or more a day.
But making water as the first choice has more than its challenges as Water First! participants shared. Initial community surveys in the Pueblo of Zuni, New Mexico, and a rural Navajo community outside of Flagstaff, Arizona, revealed that residents don’t drink the water because they don’t trust it, or it’s discolored and tastes terrible. And when looking at food sources, soda and other sugary drinks were often cheaper than bottled water at local convenient stores — sometimes the only food store for miles.
“We had to make water cool again,” said Pauline Butler, Service To All Relations or STAR School Community Happiness Coordinator serving the communities outside of Flagstaff, adding that water consumption in the school went up when students made berry-infused water placed in strategic areas and created a campaign slogan, “Say dooda to soda” or “Say no to soda” in Navajo.
Another way to reduce sugar consumption is through education, Krieger said, such as warning labels put on tobacco products, or decreasing the availability of the drinks through policy, such as requiring supermarkets to put healthier beverages near the cashier isles.
Another way to diminish the drinks, Krieger said, is an added tax on the beverages, something Berkeley, Calif., and Mexico have done. Both saw a 12 or more percent decrease in consumption in low-income communities after adding a tax.
Tribes have also taken on the issue, such as the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, which passed a resolution establishing a food and fitness policy.
The Navajo Nation, the first tribe in the country to pass a 2 percent tax on “junk food,” food with no nutritional value, projects $2 million annually from its tax, which will go to each of the 34 chapter houses for community wellness projects, such as farming and community trails.
Closing Keynote Navajo Vice President Jonathan Nez, who can be seen as an example of how Native people can live a healthy lifestyle after dropping 300 pounds, said the Diné and others need to recall traditional ways of overcoming adversity to fight diabetes and heart disease.
The Diné used to get up early, heard sheep or farm in the scorching desert sun, and also survived the Long Walk, a 300-mile trek Navajos made from their homelands to an internment camp, which was a “great teaching of overcoming,” Nez said.
“You have the ability to change your life for good,” Nez said, sharing his story as an obese Shonto Chapter community leader who would try to encourage young people to live healthier lives until a teenager’s words tore into him, “Every time we see you, you get bigger and bigger.” The comment got Nez to start walking, which turned into a love of running. He recently completed his first ultra marathon at 100k.
“When you change and when your family changes, you have the ability to change your community. You cannot help somebody if you cannot take care of yourself,” he said.