UW Project Boosts Health through Community Gardens in Navajo Nation

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Aims to Reduce Health Disparities in Two New Mexico Communities

A University of Washington School of Public Health collaboration in two Navajo Nation communities is inspiring families to grow and eat more fruit and vegetables – setting them on a path to better health.

The Yeego (Let’s go) Gardening! project features a series of collaborative studies. One of the recently completed studies developed community garden plots and workshops that teach basic cultivation techniques. The aim of that study was to boost health and wellness in two New Mexico communities – Crownpoint and Shiprock – with high rates of diabetes and low access to healthy foods.

“We’ve been able to show in the study that the gardens and gardening workshops help increase gardening among adults in the communities,” says India Ornelas, assistant professor of health services at the UW and an assistant member of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

Yeego Gardening! is a collaboration between the UW, Fred Hutch, New Mexico State University and the Navajo Nation. In the current study, researchers are measuring gardening behaviors and fruit and vegetable consumption, and hope to show a change in behavior among schoolchildren and their parents. Indirect benefits of the project include boosting physical activity and increasing knowledge of traditional Navajo connections to the earth.

“I’d like to see us having the awareness of where the food is derived from and how interconnected it is with health,” says Kevin Lombard, associate professor in the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences at New Mexico State University and joint principal investigator for the project.

The project ultimately seeks to reduce risk factors for cancer. “It’s well-known that high rates of obesity are associated with high rates of certain cancers,” says Shirley A.A. Beresford, senior associate dean and professor of epidemiology at the UW School of Public Health, a Fred Hutch member, and joint principal investigator for the project.

Adds Program Coordinator Desiree Deschenie of New Mexico State University: “The cultural aspect is probably the most important for long-term change. By learning how the land works and how you interact with it and seeing what ways work to grow your garden – that’s another major link to Navajo beliefs and culture.”

The current pilot study, funded by the National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health, began in 2008 and will continue into next year. Researchers hope to expand the program to other elementary schools in the Navajo Nation.