Improving Community Nutrition Through Traditional Tohono

Year: 2005

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

Investigator: Reader, Tristan, Katrina Jagodinsky, and Paul Buseck

Institution: Tohono O’odham Community Action

Project Contact:
Tristan Reader
Co-Director, Tohono O’odham Community Action
P.O. Box 1790
Sells, AZ 85634
Phone: 520-383-4966


Tohono O’odham Community Action (TOCA) is a grassroots organization that works to create sustainability within the Tohono O’odham Nation in areas such as economic development, cultural revitalization, and community food systems. TOCA is working to initiate an individual and family health intervention evaluation and has established a relationship with Head Start and Santa Rosa Boarding School for health intervention education. The Community-Based Health Intervention Study includes projects for Household Clinical Trials, Increased Production and Distribution of Traditional Tohono O’odham Foods, and Increased Education Campaigns for Traditional Tohono O’odham Foods. The Tohono O’odham Reservation is located 60 miles southwest of Tucson, AZ, and spans about 4,600 square miles.

To build the infrastructure for change in food systems on the Tohono O’odham reservation, TOCA has quadrupled production and harvest of traditional foods, such as tepary beans, O’odham peas and squash, cholla (choy-ah) buds, and saguaro fruit and syrup. This supply will assure the availability of traditional foods for clinical trials once they are underway. Food production is expected to continue at the current rate, but in anticipation of increased demand, TOCA is seeking both a long-term lease of farmland and more sophisticated processing equipment for a more productive yield.

These foods will also be distributed at all retail outlets and the only grocery store serving the Tohono O’odham Nation. Traditional foods will also be distributed to the Tohono O’odham Senior Center, the Santa Rosa Boarding School, and the Tohono O’odham Head Start Program. Additionally, educational workshops on food cultivation/harvesting, preparation, and nutrition have been conducted in schools, community centers, and health fairs. Community gardens are maintained at five sites across the reservation. TOCA continues to seek out other marketplaces for traditional foods distribution, even to the gourmet market. The PBS series, “Seasoned with Spirit,” will feature the TOCA food label and preparation of O’odham traditional foods. This national exposure will enhance knowledge and awareness of the TOCA food project.

Traditional foods awareness will continue to be a priority for TOCA. The educational programming is gaining success, and steps are being taken to convert it into contract income. Physical fitness programming is being increased as well. The third annual Tohono O’odham Olympic games will be held in fall 2006, and interest and attendance is anticipated to increase from previous years, affording TOCA with an opportunity to reach a larger audience with their nutrition and food education program.

TOCA faced an unanticipated challenge in the high level of tribal concerns regarding health research and anonymity of tribal members. Ten families were to be recruited for a study on the effects of consumption of two servings of traditional foods per day. The study would involve monitoring blood pressure and sugar levels, weight, and personal journal entries. TOCA is currently negotiating with the Tohono O’odham Executive Office and the University of Arizona to ensure both safeguards against misuse of biological materials and the use of culturally sensitive research and evaluation procedures.

Tohono O’odham food distribution has encountered barriers as well. Federal food programs do not recognize traditional O’odham foods in the health standards or food purchase choices; therefore, institutions must meet Federal guidelines before incorporating these foods, and individuals must make difficult financial choices when deciding on food purchases. Cafeterias on the Tohono O’odham reservation do not yet have the equipment needed for onsite food production, which limits the amount of traditional food that can be prepared and served.