The Impact of Food Assistance Programs on the Tohono O’odham Food System: An Analysis and Recommendations

Year: 2001

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

Investigator: Lopez, Daniel, Karen Wyndham, and Tristan Reader

Institution: Tohono O’odham Community College

Project Contact:
Daniel Lopez, Instructor
Tohono O’odham Community College
P.O. Box 1790
Sells, AZ 85635
Phone: 520-383-2523


The Tohono O’odham Nation sits in the heart of the Sonoran Desert, 60 miles west of Tucson, AZ. Approximately 18,000 of the tribe’s 28,000 members live on the main section of the Tohono O’odham Reservation. The Nation encompasses nearly 4,600 square miles, roughly the size of Connecticut.

Per capita income is $3,113, the lowest of all U.S. reservations. Almost 66 percent of the population has income below the poverty line, and almost 63 percent of the adult population is unemployed. More than 50 percent of all Tohono O’odham adults have adult-onset diabetes, the highest rate in the world. Life expectancy is more than 6 years shorter than the U.S. average.

The Tohono O’odham have moved from producing almost all of their own food to being almost entirely dependent on food produced off the reservation. The authors investigated the causes of the loss of the traditional Tohono O’odham food system. Their research found that the causes of the decline in food production on the reservation are (1) Federal work projects developed on cotton farms, (2) the introduction of processed food through commercial outlets and Federal food programs, (3) dependence on Federal food assistance programs, (4) environmental factors, such as the lowering of the water table due to nearby development, and (5) the movement of Tohono O’odham people off the reservation to attend boarding schools and participate in the U.S. military.

The authors note that many scientific studies have confirmed that traditional Tohono O’odham foods—such as tepary beans, mesquite beans, acorns, and cholla (cactus) buds—help regulate blood sugar and significantly reduce the incidence and effects of diabetes.

The authors documented the use of Federal food assistance programs on the Tohono O’odham Reservation. They found that, in an average month in 2001, 475 households received food through the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR), while 1,209 households received food stamps. About 750 people received WIC benefits each month. The authors note the positive effect of the food assistance programs, but also recommend some changes that might encourage the use of traditional Tohono O’odham foods and improve the health conditions on the Tohono O’odham Reservation. Some of their recommendations are to establish the WIC Farmers Market Nutrition Program on the Tohono O’odham Reservation, allow and encourage the purchase of locally produced food through the FDPIR, and encourage the development of culturally appropriate nutrition education efforts.

The authors recommend further study of the specific nutritional needs of Native Americans to be used as a guide in the implementation of Federal food assistance programs.