An Ethnographic Study of the Factors Affecting the Nutritional Patterns of Navajo Women and Their Children in the WIC Program

Year: 2005

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

Investigator: McCloskey, Joanne, and Melvatha Chee

Institution: University of New Mexico

Project Contact:
Joanne McCloskey
Institute for American Indian Research
University of New Mexico
Albuquerque, NM 87131
Phone: 505-266-3588


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 children.
  • The positive effects of WIC on eating patterns of Navajo women and children.

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 food packages.