Tackling Native American Child Nutrition

Categories:
Child Care, Early Childhood, Head Start, Native Americans

Photo of a young boy eating an apple.By Elaine Albertson

Faced with high rates of child food insecurity, obesity, and diabetes, many American Indian and Alaska Native communities are reshaping food and nutrition options for local kids. From the San Felipe Pueblo’s Mobile Grocery Service, supported by the Notah Begay III Foundation, to the 31 grantees of the Native Agriculture and Food Systems Initiative coordinated by the First Nations Development Institute, tribes are launching innovative projects to support healthy food consumption.

ACF Early Childhood Development programs work with American Indian and Alaska Native communities across the country to support healthy food and nutrition options for low-income children and families:

  • Head Start and Early Head Start oral health services support healthy mouths and healthy teeth for eating nutritious food.
  • All Head Start and some Child Care centers run the federal Child and Adult Care Food Program to provide nutritious meals to low-income children.
  • Communities operating the Tribal Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program often include nutrition education for pregnant women and new moms in their home visiting programs.
  • The Head Start and Child Care I am Moving, I am Learning intervention program includes healthy nutrition education for kids, as do the Let’s Move! Child Care and Let’s Move! in Indian Country initiatives.

ACF is one of many agencies and organizations embracing the idea that we must act now to support American Indian and Alaska Native communities that want to improve local nutrition. Many Native communities experience high rates of poverty and unemployment, and families often struggle to put enough food, and healthy enough food, on the table. While it varies by tribe, nationally 28 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native households with children are food insecure, compared to only 16 percent of non-Native households with children. Food insecure kids are more likely to be overweight or obese because healthy and fresh foods tend to be more expensive and are often simply unavailable in low-income and rural communities. American Indian and Alaska Native children follow this trend, and between one third and one half of Native American children are overweight or obese.

It is widely accepted that obesity increases risk of Type II Diabetes. A shocking statistic is that American Indian and Alaska Native youth ages 10 through 19 are nine times as likely as Non-Hispanic White youth to be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. Food insecurity can also make it more difficult to manage diabetes by limiting the ability of people with diabetes to choose foods for a diabetes-appropriate diet.

Some American Indian and Alaska Native communities are working to prevent obesity and diet-related disease by connecting nutrition to traditional practices. The CDC has partnered with 17 tribal programs that use traditional food and agricultural practices to promote healthy living and prevent type 2 diabetes. Research has linked traditional lifestyles to lower obesity and diabetes rates in the Pima Indian community. It’s clear that for some tribes, traditional lifestyles can play a role in creating food secure and healthy tribal communities.

The big question then is how we can support American Indian and Alaska Native food and farming traditions as our world becomes more urban and our natural resources become more depleted. Over 7 out of 10 Native Americans now live in urban areas with limited access to traditional environments. In rural areas, climate change, oil spills, and pollution are among many environmental pressures that limit traditional practices and affect American Indian and Alaska Native health. If trends continue, over the next century many tribes in the American West will experience a loss of water (snowpack and streams) for Native farming. Tribes around the country will encounter more degraded habitats and ecosystems for traditional edible plants and animals.

We must work hard to ensure that even in the face of urbanization and environmental degradation, American Indian and Alaska Natives in both rural and urban areas continue to have the option to engage with traditional foods and agriculture systems. Every tribe is different, but for many embracing traditional food could make the difference between an obese community and a healthy one.


Elaine Albertson is a Bill Emerson National Hunger Fellow with the Administration for Children and Families Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Early Childhood Development.