Monday, July 14, 2014

Fighting Obesity with Community Gardens in Cherokee Communities

It’s a sad fact that Native populations have the highest rates of obesity and diabetes of any ethnicity. The
Centers for Disease Control says Native Americans are 1 1/2 times more likely to be obese than other ethnic groups. Other studies have shown low-income, preschool-aged Native children have the highest obesity rate at 20 percent, and that rate is rising.

Creating a healthier Cherokee Nation has been my top priority as chief of the Cherokee Nation. We have made record investments to expand health care facilities and buy world-class equipment. However, to truly create healthier people instead of merely treating symptoms we must start educating our youngest citizens from the start.

Serenity Terhune, of Locust Grove, waters the vegetables 
at Cherokee Heights Head Start in Pryor.
Obesity is an epidemic that plagues Native communities nationwide. Tribal nations have the ability to address this deadly issue head on. Creating environments conducive to physical activity, teaching improved family nutrition, increasing access to healthy foods and starting community gardens are some of the ways to combat this growing problem.

Cherokee Nation’s ‘Learn to Grow’ community garden program teaches children how to grow their own fruits and vegetables, leaving a lifelong impression about proper nutrition and health. The program reaches more than 3,300 children in certified Cherokee Nation child care programs.

By planting, tending and harvesting their own community gardens, Cherokee kids get active and stay fit. The project is a joint effort between the tribe’s Child Care Resource and Referral office and Healthy Nations. Now in its second year, the program keeps improving. More than 100 child care facilities in Craig, Mayes, Delaware, Nowata and Ottawa counties are now participating by having community gardens nearby.

With the help of their caretakers, children grow nutritional and traditional foods like squash, corn, beans, peppers, melons, tomatoes and lettuce. We are making changes that not only combat obesity, but also promote physical fitness and healthier eating in Cherokee communities.

Studies show that children who participate in growing their own food become more interested in good nutrition. The simple act of growing their own produce makes kids more inclined to eat healthy fruits and vegetables. These are easy changes we can make in Indian Country to prevent chronic diseases and lower the mortality rates associated with obesity. 

That vested interest of where their food source comes from is something we hope these children maintain for a lifetime. Watching children become active contributors in their gardens, and seeing the pride and ownership they take in their crops, is inspiring to say the least.

The program also teaches children an important cultural lesson, as sustainable foods have always been a part of the Cherokee Nation’s heritage and traditions.

Generations ago, growing our own food and maintaining our natural environment were the things Cherokees passed from generation to generation. With this garden program, coupled with our Heirloom Seed Bank Program, the Cherokee government and its people are getting back to that way of thinking.

I’d also like to thank our partners in the Learn to Grow project. The OSU Extension Office, the Department of Human Services Licensing and the Native American Associations of Ketchum and Adair have been integral to the success of this program.

An informed community willing to ensure access to healthier foods and physical activity where we live, work and play will result in happier and healthier kids.