Navajo is rebuilding traditional foods as inflation, supply chain problems hit hard

NAVAJO NATION, Ariz. The Navajo nation is spread over more than 27,000 square kilometers, but its citizens, Diné – as many prefer to be called – are served by fewer than a dozen grocery stores.

As the country’s supply chain cracked, causing shipping delays, areas that were already on the fringes of this system, like the reservation, felt even tougher impacts.

Germaine Simonson owns the Rocky Ridge Gas & Market store in the Hard Rock branch of the Navajo Nation (a chapter resembling a city in a reservation context). Her humble grocery store is like a mirage at the confluence of two gravel roads with washboards: It’s the only place over more than 100 miles where her community can buy food and important things.

And it’s not easy to keep its shelves full. “I have no purchasing power,” she said, pointing to the stacks of snacks around her.

“For a while there we were not able to get tissue products. We were not able to get Clorox products, napkins, disinfectants, ”she said, referring to the high period of Covid-19 proliferation on the Navajo Nation.

Tyrone Thompson, owner of Ch’ishie Farms at Navajo Nation, picks ripe red radishes from the ground inside his greenhouse. “Ch’ishie” is a Diné word meaning “ash”, he says, because agricultural work is dusty and dirty.Andrew Davis / NBC News

Many of Simonson’s customers have to drive 30 miles each way for groceries, and rain makes gravel roads impassable. Even her vans can sometimes not cope with the drive, and she has to meet customers at the nearest highway or even pick up supplies.

“A fish without water. That’s how I feel most of the time being here in this rural community,” she said, noting that she also loves her people and this country.

“I just do not have the resources. I mean, did you see a bank come here? So you, you know, maybe an accounting firm that you know I could go to? Did you see a Small Business Administration office? Nothing, you saw nothing, ”said Simonson, who had a career in social work before taking over the grocery store.

The food was already expensive in the Navajo Nation before the pandemic. Shoppers often pay more than double what they would in larger border towns for basic goods like milk and meat. Simonson said she needs to label products just to stay open and cover operating costs.

A billboard on the Navajo Nation near Leupp, Arizona, announces fast food to passers-by in stark contrast to the majestic mesas that define the landscape. Chiara Sottile / NBC News

Roxana Bedonie, a resident of the Navajo Nation and mother of four, would have to drive for hours after groceries, if not for Rocky Ridge. “Prices are a little high, but sometimes I don’t have the gas money to go all the way out to border towns, and so this is my last option,” she said.

She notes the higher prices locally: With almost $ 7 per. gallons is milk more than double what it would cost at Walmart in Phoenix. And Simonson sells a 12.1-ounce can of breast milk substitute, which costs less than $ 30 in big stores, for $ 44.

Food inflation is rising across the country, but at Navajo Nation, food prices rose 14.6 percent more on average in the third quarter of the year than in city centers. Categories such as products and delicacies have been particularly expensive at Navajo Nation, according to research firm Datasembly.

Food inflation is rising across the country, but at Navajo Nation, prices rose by about 14.6 percent more than in city centers.

Even regional merchants have struggled to stay afloat during the pandemic. The grocery chain Bashas’, which has operated at Navajo Nation for more than 40 years, sells to Raley’s, a major supermarket chain. “Like a small region [market], we struggled to get the product into our distribution center. We do not have the purchasing power, so we do not have the impact that national retailers have, ”said Trey Basha, CEO and President of Bashas’ Inc.

Navajo farmers, chefs working to decolonize food

“People with money should not be the only ones buying a fresh garden salad, you know what I mean?” said chef Carlos Deal, who is Diné, while slicing vegetables in an impromptu kitchen space at the back of Simonson’s Market.

Deal, who set himself up through the Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts in Boulder, Colorado, owns and operates a catering company called AlterNative Eats. Although his kitchen has a temporary stove and no hood, he said, he will work as long and hard as it takes to help his people eat healthier.

Chef Carlos Deal, who owns AlterNative Eats, which caters to the Navajo Nation, hopes his locally sourced salads will help his Diné community on its path to food sovereignty.Andrew Davis / NBC News

The deal is part of a growing movement in the Navajo nation to decolonize the reservation’s reliance on highly processed external foods. It’s a diet that was imposed on them: the federal government systematically destroyed their traditional eateries beginning in the 1860s.

“They burned all the food, they burned all the crops, they destroyed all the fruit trees. And they burned everyone home, and then they started sending everyone to concentration camps,” Deal said, referring to the Long Walk, in which the American cavalry forced Navajo men, women and children to walk hundreds of kilometers.

“They gave us fat, lard, in the concentration camp. They gave us flour, sugar, salt,” he said, pointing to the high incidence of diabetes and obesity among his community members.

Despite efforts to destroy their culture, Navajo Nation entrepreneurs are not giving up. They are building a new food system that grows and distributes food locally. The micro vegetables, carrots and herbs that Deal lovingly arranges in a nice plastic box for sale at Rocky Ridge Gas & Grocery were grown on a Navajo-owned farm called Ch’ishie Farms near Leupp, Arizona.

One recent afternoon under a setting sun, Ch’ishie Farms’ owner, Tyrone Thompson, picked kale and radishes from neat rows in his greenhouse and tossed them in a crumpled paper bag that Deal could take back to the market.

Tyrone Thompson, owner and operator of Ch’ishie Farms and a member of the Navajo Nation, is working with local grocers and chefs to develop a locally based food system.Chiara Sottile / NBC News

“It’s just getting back to our roots and, you know, our traditional ways, as well as taking innovative ways like the hanger houses,” said Thompson, who has helped his community build more than 40 greenhouses.

But progress is slow, food is expensive, and bureaucratic bureaucracy is particularly sticky on the Navajo nation. Bleu Adams, a chef and restaurateur, says food prices for meat in particular have tripled and quadrupled because the Navajo Nation is “the last step on the supply chain ladder.”

“It was very deliberate. We had a large amount of natural resources that companies, including the federal government, wanted,” she said.

Chef and restaurateur Bleu Adams had to remove beef from his menu because prices more than tripled. Andrew Davis / NBC News

Like Thompson and Deal, Adams is regaining his original identity with food.

“There’s so much you can do with native cooking,” said Adams, who is Hidatsa, Mandan and Diné sitting in the kitchen of her closed restaurant, Blackbird Brunch. “It’s both been here since time immemorial, but it’s also like this budding culinary scene.” Blackbird Brunch was forced to shut the pandemic in, but she has big plans for the space.

She is trying to build a coworking space and an incubator for small businesses called Indigihub, complete with high-speed broadband internet (not to mention electricity and water, which many Navajo people do not have).

At Rocky Ridge Gas & Market, Simonson, who is trying to put together repairs to the aging building, hopes to have his own hanger on site one day.

“There has to be constant education about food, and how, you know, really, that food is medicine,” said Simonson, who said she wished her patrons would buy more broccoli and fewer bags of chips. “And so it becomes a slow process.”

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