Diabetes used to be rare among Native Americans. Before the 1950s, there were few accounts of lifestyle diseases like type 2 diabetes mellitus (T2DM), says Valarie Blue Bird Jernigan, a member of the Choctaw Nation and University of Oklahoma researcher who studies the impacts of food environments on Native American health: “They couldn’t really be found in Native American communities. The major problem was malnutrition.” In 1940, only 21 cases of T2DM were identified among the Akimel O’odham people living in the Sonoran Desert. By 2006, 38% of adults in that tribe had T2DM.
The rate of diagnosed T2DM among American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN) adults is now double that of white adults, and the incidence among children and young adults is > 10 times that of other groups.
“Focusing on biologic factors alone overlooks factors that propel development of chronic diseases,” say researchers from the University of New Mexico and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Native Diabetes Wellness program. Poverty, historical trauma, and adverse childhood experiences all play a part in AI/AN health issues. But food insecurity—uncertain or limited access to enough food for a healthy life—also correlates with greater risk of T2DM. In 2016, nearly 30% of AI/AN households were food insecure, compared with 16% of non-AI/AN households. Rates of food insecurity among AI/AN children are about double the national rates. Compounding the problem, “ food deserts ” are still common in Indian Country.
Native Americans used to eat healthier, living off the land, hunting, and fishing. Then federal mandates affected the land and water resources of tribal nations, disrupting indigenous food systems and reducing access to traditional foods, the researchers say. In the 1970s, the federal government began buying up surplus foods to support prices for farmers, then providing them to Native communities. The food was needed—the problem was that it consisted largely of high-salt, high-fat, high-sugar canned foods. One consequence of the calorie-dense commodities-based diet was “commod bod,” a phrase coined in Native communities.
Recently some traditional foods, like hand-harvested wild rice, grass-fed bison, and wild-caught Pacific salmon, have been added to the food assistance programs; the US Department of Agriculture cites high rates of participant satisfaction. About one-third of 103 tribal organizations also now have “grocery-store–like models” where aid recipients can select their own foods, including fresh fruits and vegetables.
However, in February, the Trump administration released a proposal to overhaul the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, replacing half the benefits people receive with boxed, nonperishable foods. According to recent research, Jernigan says, 60% of Native Americans who receive food assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program rely on the program as their primary source of food.
It became clear that one way to help AI/AN communities reclaim their health was to bring back the old ways. The Indian Health Service (IHS) Tribal Leaders Diabetes Committee has supported programs in which AI/AN communities integrate their own cultures and history, to encourage healthier lifestyles. The concept of a “food sovereignty movement” evolved into programs like the Traditional Foods Project (TFP).