Many Navajo women and children, as well as other low-income
women and children in the United States, are at dietary risk. The
Federal Government’s Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women,
Infants, and Children (WIC) considers dietary risk based on an individual’s
food intake from a 24-hour recall questionnaire, or Food Frequency Query
(FFQ). Rural locales, poverty, and high unemployment are major factors in
availability and quality of food, as is the sharing of limited resources
between extended family members. Many Navajos now rely on a cash
economy rather than the traditional pastoral lifestyle of sheepherding and
farming, which not only affects resource sharing but also nutritional value
of available food.
This study focused on interviews with 44 women enrolled in the New
Mexico Department of Health WIC clinic in Cuba, NM. Interviews
were conducted by four employees at the Cuba WIC clinic after initial
contact with and agreement by the participants. The women were residents
of Torreon, Ojo Encino, or Counselor chapters or the small community of
Cuba. The participants ranged in age from 18 to 43, and all were either
pregnant or mothers of children enrolled in WIC; one was a grandmother
of a 2-year-old enrolled in WIC.
The objectives of the study were to examine:
- The social, cultural, and economic factors that affect the eating patterns of
Navajo women and their children.
- From the perspective of Navajo women and WIC staff members, the
major concerns and challenges that affect the nutritional status of Navajo
women and children.
- The major characteristics of the eating patterns of Navajo women and
- The positive effects of WIC on eating patterns of Navajo women and
The study found that eating patterns generally depended upon living
arrangements. The majority of the participants lived near or with extended
family members and shared food purchasing and preparation responsibilities,
as well as accommodation for meal schedules. Food stamps and WIC
assistance played a key role in the acquisition of food for the families.
Another issue affecting eating patterns is that of transportation. Some
mothers who do not own a vehicle or are unable to afford gas must rely on
friends or family for transportation to and from the WIC office or the
market. For example, WIC farmer’s market coupons were provided to
enrollees for markets in Albuquerque or Farmington. Those who did not
use the coupons blamed transportation as an obstacle to buying fresh goods
at those locations.
Major concerns and challenges to nutritional status included weight, food
insecurity, and healthy diet choices. Mothers expressed concern about their
own weight and that of their children. Some expressed hope that WIC
recipes and dietary information could assist in weight loss and management
for family members. The diabetes rate is exceptionally high for Native
people, and the study participants were concerned about their children’s
dietary habits now in order to prevent diabetes later. Challenges discussed
by WIC personnel were the need for more information on nutrition and
increased discussion and counseling regarding nutrition issues. Another
concern of staffers was mothers who ran out of baby formula before the
next available WIC check. Breastfeeding is encouraged by WIC, at least
through the first year. The nutrition manager at the Cuba office stated that
breastfeeding is on the rise among Navajo and that the sense of pride and
support is growing for mothers who breastfeed.
Based on the 24-hour recall, eating patterns of the study participants
indicated a lack of traditional foods in the diet. Fry bread and mutton
stew are eaten rarely, usually at ceremonies or other celebrations only. Potatoes
and corn were the most common vegetables consumed. Fast food, such
as McDonald’s hamburgers, soft drinks, and French fries, were listed among
regular meals in a 24-hour span. Mothers indicated that fruits and vegetables
were in short supply, but children enjoyed the orange juice provided by
WIC as an alternative to sodas.
The study determined that WIC had made substantial progress in
educating Navajo mothers about healthy foods. Because of this knowledge,
Navajo mothers were more likely to consider food preparation (using
less fat/lard), substituting milk or juice for soft drinks, and the addition of
more and varied fruits and vegetables into the diet. Pregnant women in the
study indicated that they were keeping food records and monitoring their
diets in order to provide good nutrition for the unborn babies. Another positive
outcome for Navajo women was the nutritional information for
diabetics provided by WIC, not only for themselves but also for family
members for which they did the food selecting, purchasing, and preparing.
The findings indicate that Navajo women exhibit some degree of food
insecurity. Obesity and other health risks appear to coincide with food insecurity,
and participation in WIC programs decreases the risk of obesity and
other health risks. Of those participating in the study, women pregnant with
first children and those who were obese exhibited the greatest interest in
WIC nutrition programs that teach healthy diet choices. Participants stated,
however, that providing on-site nutrition education in the rural chapters
would allow more people to attend.
WIC staff members in the Cuba office being Navajo aided in the culturally
appropriate delivery of information, and the flexibility of WIC office
hours afforded the women open opportunities to pick up their checks and