Navajo rebuild traditional food ways as inflation, supply chain woes hit hard

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Navajo Nation, Arizona – The Navajo Nation spans more than 27,000 square miles, but its citizens, diners—as many people like to be called—are served by less than a dozen grocery stores.

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As the country’s supply chain broke down, causing shipping delays, areas that were already on the edge of that system, such as reservations, felt even more drastic effects.

Jermaine Simonson owns the Rocky Ridge Gas & Market store in the Hard Rock chapter of the Navajo Nation (a chapter similar to a city in terms of reservations). Her simple grocery store is like a mirage at the confluence of two gravel, washboard streets: It’s the only place over 100 miles where her community can buy food and essentials.

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And stocking her shelves isn’t easy. “I don’t have the purchasing power,” he said, pointing to the pile of snacks around him. “There for some time, we were not able to get tissue products. We weren’t able to get Clorox products, wipes, sanitizers,” she lamented, referring to the peak period of Covid-19 spreading over the Navajo nation.

Tyrone Thompson, owner of Chishi Farms on Navajo Nation, plucks ripe red radishes from the ground inside his greenhouse. “Chishi” is a Din word meaning “ash”, so named because, they say, the farm work is dusty and dirty.Andrew Davis / Granthshala News

Many of Simonson’s customers have to drive 30 miles each way to get groceries, and the rain makes the dirt roads impassable. Even her delivery trucks sometimes can’t drive, and she has to meet customers on the nearest road or go to get supplies herself.

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“Fish without water. This is how I feel most of the time in this rural community,” she said, noting that she also loves her people and this land. “I don’t have the resources. I mean, have you seen a bank come here? Did you see, you know, maybe an accountant’s office, which, you know, I can go to? Have you started a small business? See the administration office? Nothing, you didn’t see anything,” said Simonson, who had a career in social work before taking over the grocery store.

Food was already expensive in the Navajo Nation before the pandemic. Buyers often pay more than double that in large border cities for staples such as milk and meat. Simonson says they only have to mark up products to stay open and cover the cost of operating.

A billboard on the Navajo Nation near Lupe, Ariz., advertises fast food to passersby in contrast to the majestic mess that defines the landscape. Chiara Sotille / Granthshala News

Roxana Bedoni, a Navajo Nation resident and mother of four, would have had to drive for hours for groceries if not for Rocky Ridge. “The prices are very high, but sometimes I don’t have the gas money to go to the border towns and so that’s my last option.” She notices the higher prices locally: At about $7 per gallon, milk costs more than twice as much in Phoenix as at Walmart. And, Simonsons sells a 12.1-ounce can of baby formula for $44, when it costs less than $30 at big box stores.

Food inflation is rising nationwide, but in the Navajo Nation, on average, food prices rose 14.6 percent higher in the third quarter of this year than in urban centers. Categories such as products and deli have been notably more expensive on the Navajo Nation, according to research firm Datasembly.

Food inflation is rising nationwide, but in the Navajo Nation, prices rose by about 14.6 percent higher than in urban centers.

Even regional grocers have struggled to keep up during the pandemic. Grocery chain Basha, which has operated on the Navajo Nation for more than 40 years, is in the process of selling to a larger supermarket chain, Raleigh. “As a Little Territorial” [market], we were struggling to get the product into our distribution center. We don’t have the buying power, so we don’t have the clout that national retailers have,” Trey Basha, CEO and President of Bashas Inc., told Granthshala News.

Navajo farmers, chefs work to free food from colonization

“People with the money shouldn’t be the only ones buying a fresh garden salad, you know what I mean?” Chef Carlos Deal, who is also the diner, said he shredded vegetables in a kitchen behind Simonson’s Market. Deal put himself through the Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts in Boulder, Colorado, and now owns and operates a catering company called Alternative Eats. Although his kitchen has a makeshift stove and no vent hood, he says he will work as long and hard as he can to help his people eat more healthily.

Chef Carlos Deal owns “Alternative Eats,” which caters to the Navajo Nation, and hopes his locally sourced salads will help his dine community on the path to food sovereignty.Andrew Davis / Granthshala News

The deal is part of a growing movement in the Navajo Nation to end the reservation’s reliance on outside, highly processed food. It is a diet that was imposed on them: the United States government systematically destroyed their traditional eating methods starting in the 1860s.

“They burnt all the food, they burnt all the crops, they destroyed all the fruit trees. And they burned down all the houses, and then they started sending everyone to concentration camps,” Deal explained, referring to the Long Walk, during which American cavalry forced Navajo men, women, and children to walk hundreds of miles. force to.

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

But despite this effort to destroy their culture, the Navajo Nation’s entrepreneurs are not giving up. In effect, they are building a new food system that develops and distributes food locally. The microgreens, carrots, and herbs, which deal in neat plastic boxes to sell at Rocky Ridge Gas & Grocery, were grown on a Navajo-owned farm called Chishi Farms near Lupe, Arizona.

On a recent afternoon, Chishi Farms owner Tyrone Thompson plucked kale and radishes from neat rows in his greenhouse and dropped them into a crinkly paper bag for a deal to bring back to market.

Tyrone Thompson, owner and operator of Chishi Farms and a member of the Navajo Nation, is working with local grocers and chefs to develop a community-based food system.Chiara Sotille / Granthshala News

“It’s just coming back to our roots and, you know, our traditional ways, as well as new ways like the hoop house.” Thompson has already helped his community build more than 40 greenhouses.

But progress is slow, food is expensive, and bureaucratic red tape is clinging exclusively to the Navajo Nation. Bleu Adams is a chef and restaurateur who says she has seen food prices, especially for meat, triple and quadruple, being “the last rung on the supply chain ladder”.

“It was very intentional. We had huge amounts of natural resources that companies, including the federal government, wanted,” she explained.

Chef and restaurateur Blue Adams had to remove beef from his menu as prices had more than tripled. Andrew Davis / Granthshala News

Like Thompson and Deal, Adams is reclaiming its indigenous identity with food.

“There’s a lot you can do with Indigenous cooking,” explained Adams, who hidtsa, mandates, and dines in the kitchen of his closed restaurant, Blackbird Brunch. “These two have been here since time immemorial, but it’s also like this growing culinary scene.” Blackbird Brunch was forced to close in the pandemic, but it has big plans for the space.

She’s trying to build a co-working space and small business incubator called “IndigiHub” with fast broadband Internet (not to mention electricity and water, which many Navajo people don’t have).

Back at Rocky Ridge Gas & Market, Simonson is trying to put together repairs on the aging building and hopes that someday he will have a hoop house of his own.

“There has to be continuing education about food, and how do you know that food really is medicine.” Said Simonson, who wishes her patrons would buy more broccoli and fewer bags of chips. “And so it’s going to be a slow process.”

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