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(Many Paths)
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Nourishing Native Foods Win National Cooking Competition
by Sanra Ritten, Indian Country Today correspondent
credits: Photo by Mary Paganelli

Members from the Tohono O’odham Community Action Youth Cooking Class tantalized the taste buds of the judges in a national cooking competition with Native ingredients from their community, winning them the prestigious contest in Detroit, Mich. in May.

The Cooking Up Change competition, part of the Healthy Schools Campaign and the Farm to School program, allows students to actively address the issue of local foods and school nutrition. Teams of high school and college students are challenged to create a healthy, great-tasting meal that meets high nutritional standards, incorporates a local food item, draws from readily available ingredients and can be prepared in a school cafeteria.

The TOCA Youth Community Cooking Class members, Ross Miguel, Yvette Ventura, and Zade Arnold were the only Native American team to make it to the finals. They triumphed with a tepary bean quesadilla, baby spinach and pear salad with carrot vinaigrette, and a yogurt peanut butter fruit dip. They introduced new and exciting flavors to the competition that are also culturally appropriate and that have sustained their community for generations.

“Tepary beans are the most significant traditional food of the Tohono O’odham people,” the team explained to the Healthy Schools Campaign. They also locally sourced their carrots and spinach from the Student Learning Farm at Tohono O’odham Community College in Sells, Ariz.

“The quesadilla is something we have at school but we wanted to make a better, healthier one. We love spinach and carrots so the salad idea just popped into our heads. When we saw peanut butter and yogurt on the list, we thought it would be good together,” the team said to the Healthy Schools Campaign.

They explained that creating a healthy meal is also part of creating a healthy community. “It’s our traditional way to be healthy and we need to get back to that with our traditional foods,” they said.

Tepary beans, bawi, are indigenous to the Sonoran Desert in Arizona and can only be found there. Not only are they one of the most heat and drought resistant crops in the world but, they are also incredibly nutritious. They are extremely high in protein and very low on the glycemic index, which measures the effects of carbohydrates on blood sugar levels. As a result, they are particularly good for the Tohono O’odham people who have the highest rate of diabetes among Native American groups, according to the USDA.

Diabetes wasn’t even known in the community until the 1960s yet today, more than 50 percent of the population develops the disease, the highest rate in the world.

Childhood and adult obesity contribute to the diabetes crisis, creating a vicious cycle of weight gain and insulin intolerance.

For centuries, traditional desert foods like the tepary bean, corn and squash sustained the Tohono O’odham people. Until the second half of the 20th century, the Tohono O’odham were almost entirely food self-sufficient. Agricultural practices adapted to the extreme weather conditions, combined with hunting and gathering of wild foods not only provided a varied diet for the community but it required high levels of physical activity and stimulated a rich culture.

In 1930, the Tohono O’odham produced 1.4 million pounds of tepary beans yet by 2001, fewer than 100 pounds were produced.

Several factors played a role in changing the food system in the Tohono O’odham community over the years. Diabetes began to be diagnosed at extremely high rates as processed foods were introduced and people moved away from traditional foods.

One of TOCA’s main goals is to reintroduce native, traditional foods not only in the schools system but also into the diet of the community as a whole.

Mary Paganelli, mentor of the winning team, said, “It’s about the reintegration of culture and health and to show people the health benefits and wonderful flavors of traditional foods.”

Paganelli is also the chef consultant at the Desert Rain Café, which was opened on the Tohono O’odham reservation about a year and a half ago in order to extend TOCA’s mission of offering healthy, traditional foods to the community.

“We will be using the winning recipe in the Desert Rain Café so that everyone in the community will have a chance to taste it.”

Another triumph for TOCA and the Youth Cooking Class is the integration of one menu item per week featuring native foods in the Baboquivari School District next year. A grant awarded to TOCA will pay for locally grown foods from the TOCA farm to use in the student’s meals.

The growth of TOCA

Tohono O’odham Community Action (TOCA) is a community-based organization dedicated to creating a healthy, sustainable, and a culturally-vital community on the Tohono O’odham Nation.

It was founded in 1996 by Terrel Dew Johnson and Tristan Reader and has since grown into an important grassroots organization. TOCA has four key Program Areas:

  • TOCA’s Food System & Wellness program creates physical, spiritual, cultural and economic wellness through the promotion of the traditional foods, O’odham sports, and the work that has supported the Tohono O’odham community for countless generations.

  • TOCA’s Basketweavers Organization makes basketweaving a viable economic option and valued cultural practice for increased numbers of Tohono O’odham.

  • TOCA’s Elder/Youth Outreach Initiative works with their community’s young people and elders in the rejuvenation of Tohono O’odham culture and the development of a sustainable community on the Tohono O’odham Nation.

  • TOCA’s Arts and Culture Program is uniquely situated to contribute to the revitalization of Tohono O’odham culture by connecting their efforts to rejuvenate cultural practices to provide a stronger foundation for cultural survival.

For more information:

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