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
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