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How Hydroponics are Solving Climate Challenges and Food Insecurity in the Navajo Nation

The Navajo Nation Reservation is a rural area classified as a food desert by the United States Department of Agriculture. There are only 13 grocery stores that offer fresh fruit, vegetables and basic supplies in the Navajo Nation. These grocery stores are only in high population areas in the Reserve. Compared to off-reservation stores, the products sold here are poorer quality and cost more. Then there are trading posts, convenience stores, and gas stations across the Nation that offer highly processed, canned, dry, and unhealthy foods. The Navajo Nation experiences limited access to affordable healthy foods which contributes to increased obesity and diabetes prevalence among the Navajo people.

Within the Navajo Nation, the food insecurity rate is 76.7%, which is the highest reported rate in the United States due to structural challenges, high unemployment, geographic barriers, and the limited varieties and quantities of fruits and vegetables along with difficulty to access food due to high poverty rates. Historically, Navajo people have sustained their food security through their connection to the land, water, and all living entities. Colonization and displacement have increased Native people’s likelihood of experiencing health disparities like diabetes. Colonialism changed the traditional diets of the Navajo people, which caused a change in lifestyle and created social and economic inequalities that contribute to food insecurity. Numerous issues with the Navajo people’s health, land, and water due to capitalist and colonial practices have limited the Navajo people’s availability to grow their traditional foods and to address their health issues. 

Today, the Navajo Nation is at the front line of climate change and is experiencing severe drought due to extraction companies nearby and on the reservation land. This has been affecting traditional plants, food production, and food access. Climate change has been exacerbating economic, social, and environmental tensions that contribute to food and water insecurity. The effects are devastating, especially for Navajo people who rely on the land for sustenance and cultural vitality. 

How Hydroponic Systems Work

Hydroponics is a sustainable food production system that uses less water than traditional field crop watering methods, produces higher yields of plants in a shorter time frame, uses less space (as it can be grown vertically), and doesn’t require soil. Use of these systems does not contribute to destruction and disruption of topsoil, whereas industrial agriculture has severely depleted topsoil integrity and biodiversity in the US. 

(Two hydroponic systems built by Nurturing Plants.)

The use of this system in Native communities can contribute to an increase in fresh fruit and vegetable consumption within the typical household while providing access to healthier foods and increasing awareness and knowledge about climate change and the importance of sustainable food production. Hydroponic systems can provide a reimagined food source for the Navajo Nation in the American southwest while being water-conscious. 

The Nurturing Plants Solution 

Nurturing Plants addresses multiple problems including obesity, diabetes, food insecurity, and climate change while revitalizing and reclaiming traditional foods and leafy greens into the daily diet of the Navajo people. The program leads a series of five hydroponic workshops that provide future farmers, beginning farmers, and advanced farmers with the skills and knowledge to apply sustainable and conservation practices to their own farms, gardens, and backyards. Participants receive a free hydroponic system, seeds, farm tools, and more to implement practices taught within workshops.

(Members of the Navajo Nation attend a workshop on building hydroponic farming systems.)

The program is designed to be three months long and requires participants to attend five hands-on workshops and one community gathering, and to grow food using the hydroponic system. The workshops range from one to two hours and occur twice a month. The workshops focus on five skills

  1. Building and maintaining the hydroponic system 

  2. Gardening basics such as planting, growing, and harvesting plants

  3. Nutrient and Navajo traditional food education

  4. Farm-to-table Indigenous food demonstrations 

  5. Farm-to-market sales through scaling up hydroponic systems to sell produce to local food hubs and farmer’s markets. 

All workshops use a community-based approach through peer learning, collaboration, open discussion, and group activities. Workshops integrate Navajo cultural practices including Hózhǫ́ógo Iiná (Navajo healing and restoring balance and harmony) to address participants’ spiritual health and wellness while also increasing fruit and vegetable consumption. 

(Workshop attendees learn to build a hydroponic system.)

The development of Nurturing Plants is a collaborative effort of community members who are farmers, gardeners, and public health professionals, and Native-led organizations such as Navajo Ethno-Agriculture. We want to implement a culturally-rooted program and be responsive to the respective communities we serve while valuing Indigenous voices and knowledge. We intend to motivate Indigenous communities to restore the traditional foods that used to grow in the rural areas where they live to increase their control over their natural resources and food system. Our program understands the limitations these communities experience when trying to access technology, funding, seeds, traditional knowledge, and reconnection to their Diné food ways.

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