Community Attitudes Toward Traditional Tohono O’odham Foods

Year: 2002

Research Center: American Indian Studies Program, The University of Arizona

Investigator: Lopez, Daniel, Tristan Reader, and Paul Buseck

Institution: Tohono O’odham Community College

Project Contact:
Daniel Lopez, Instructor
Tohono O’odham Community College
P.O. Box 3129
Sells, AZ 85634
Phone: 520-383-8401


The Tohono O’odham people have the highest rate of diabetes among Native American tribes. About 50 percent of Tohono O’odham adults have adult-onset diabetes compared with 4-6 percent of the overall U.S. population. A number of studies have shown that the components of many traditional Tohono O’odham foods, such as tepary beans, cholla cactus buds, and wild spinach, help regulate blood sugar and reduce the incidence and effects of diabetes. In this study, the authors examined the prevalence of traditional Tohono O’odham food in the diets of tribal members and assessed the level of interest among tribal members in incorporating more traditional food into their diets.

The authors surveyed primary caregivers in 128 households, which contain an estimated 625 household members. Almost 75 percent of respondents are female, and about 60 percent are under age 36. Almost 20 percent of respondents suffer from diabetes, and almost 80 percent reported that at least one family member has diabetes.

The study found that less than one-fourth of survey respondents often eat traditional food. Respondents were asked about a number of possible obstacles to eating more traditional food. They reported that the limited availability of traditional food and lack of time to prepare it are the two main obstacles to eating traditional Tohono O’odham food. Over 60 percent would eat traditional food often if it were available. About 13 percent reported that they do not know what the traditional foods are, and less than 1 percent reported that they do not like the taste.

The survey shows that 60 percent of the respondents know that eating many traditional foods helps prevent diabetes, but just 53 percent know that eating these foods can help keep diabetics healthier.

The study found that about 27 percent of respondents receive food stamps, 7 percent receive USDA commodities through the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR), and 32 percent participate in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). Almost 90 percent of surveyed FDPIR participants would like to receive traditional food as part of their commodity package, and almost 90 percent of surveyed WIC participants would like to receive supplemental coupons to purchase traditional foods, if these foods were available. Almost half of surveyed Food Stamp Program participants would definitely buy traditional foods with their food stamps, and another 30 percent would probably buy them. Although these results are based on responses to hypothetical questions, they suggest that these Federal food assistance program participants are receptive to incorporating traditional food into their diets. The authors made recommendations for how Federal food assistance programs could help to encourage the consumption of healthy, traditional Tohono O’odham food.