A nonprofit organization is working to change the eating habits of youths of the Tohono O'odham Nation by introducing traditional foods into school lunch programs.
"All the traditional . . . foods are actually really good for regulating blood-sugar levels and for helping address diabetes and obesity," says Tristan Reader, co-director of Tohono O'odham Community Action (TOCA).
A couple of weeks ago, students in the Indian Oasis Baboquivari-Unified School District tried brown-tepary-bean quesadillas and white-tepary-bean green-chile chicken stew in their lunches, says Karen Blaine, project director of the Tohono O'odham Food and Fitness Initiative with TOCA.
"There was pepperoni pizza, and then there were traditional foods, side by side. The kids had that choice, and I'd say that two-thirds" chose the traditional foods, Reader says.
About 1,000 traditional meals are being served to students from elementary to high school once a month as part of this pilot program.
"And then by next year, the school district will try to move back to once a week to really interest these kids," Reader says.
TOCA is working with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and its Community and Food Initiative on the program, which includes fitness, Blaine says.
Students also are encouraged to learn traditional O'odham games and gardening.
"Gardens in school are just outstanding tools for education, for anything, for math, for science," Blaine says.
Obesity among tribal members is a concern, as is the high rate of diabetes.
"More than half of the adults have it," Reader says. "Six- and 7-year-old kids have it."
Indian Health Services reports that 76 percent of students from sixth to eighth grade on the reservation are overweight or obese.
The pilot program has been well-received. "Some grandparents . . . said their grandkids came home talking about how great the foods were," Reader says. "That's very encouraging."