NAVAJO NATION, ARIZONA – The Navajo Nation spans over 27,000 square miles, but its citizens, the DinÃ© – as many prefer to be called – are served by less than a dozen grocery stores.
As the country’s supply chain fractured, causing shipping delays, areas that were already on the fringes of this system, such as reservation, felt even harder impacts.
Germaine Simonson is the owner of the Rocky Ridge Gas & Market store in the Hard Rock Chapter of the Navajo Nation (a chapter is similar to a town in the context of the reservation). Her humble grocery store is like a mirage at the confluence of two gravel and washboard roads: it’s the only place in more than 160 km where her community can buy food and essentials.
And it’s not easy to keep your shelves full. âI have no purchasing power,â she said, pointing to the piles of snacks around her. âFor a while there, we couldn’t get any paper products. We couldn’t get Clorox products, wipes, disinfectants, âshe lamented, referring to the peak period of Covid-19 that has spread over the Navajo nation.
Many Simonson customers have to travel 30 miles each way to shop, and the rain makes dirt roads impassable. Even her delivery trucks sometimes can’t make the trip, and she has to meet customers in the nearest thoroughfare or pick up supplies on her own.
âA fish without water. That’s what I feel most of the time here in this rural community, âshe said, noting that she also loves her people and this land. âI just don’t have the resources. I mean, have you seen a bank come here? Did you see, you know, maybe an accountant’s office where, you know, I could go? Have you seen a small business administration office? Nothing, you ain’t seen nothing, “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 what they would pay in large border towns for staples such as milk and meat. Simonson says she needs to mark the products just to stay open and cover operating costs.
Roxana Bedonie, a Navajo Nation resident and mother of four, would have to drive for hours to do groceries without Rocky Ridge. “The prices are quite high, but sometimes I don’t have the gas money to go to the border towns so this is my last option.” She notices the higher prices locally: At nearly $ 7 a gallon, milk is more than double what it would cost at Walmart in Phoenix. And Simonson sells a 12.1-ounce can of infant formula for $ 44, while it costs less than $ 30 at big box stores.
The rate of food inflation is on the rise nationwide, but in the Navajo Nation, on average, food prices rose 14.6% more in the third quarter of this year than in urban centers . Categories such as produce and deli meats were particularly expensive in the Navajo Nation, according to research firm Datasembly.
The rate of food inflation is on the rise across the country, but in the Navajo Nation, prices have risen about 14.6% more than in urban centers.
Even regional grocers have struggled to stay afloat during the pandemic. The Bashas’ grocery chain, operating in the Navajo Nation for over 40 years, is selling to Raley’s, a larger supermarket chain. âAs a small region [market], we were having trouble getting the product into our distribution center. We don’t have the purchasing power, so we don’t have the weight of national retailers, âTrey Basha, CEO and President of Bashas’ Inc., told NBC News.
Navajo farmers and chefs work to decolonize food
“People with the money shouldn’t be the only ones buying a garden-fresh salad, you know what I mean?” Chef Carlos Deal, who is also DinÃ©, said while cutting vegetables in a makeshift kitchen space at the back of Simonson Market. Deal enrolled in the Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts in Boulder, Colo., And now owns and operates a restaurant business called AlterNative Eats. Although his kitchen has a makeshift stove and no hood, he says he will work as long and hard as it takes to help his people eat healthier.
Deal is part of a growing movement by the Navajo Nation to decolonize the reserve’s dependence on highly processed foods from the outside. It was a diet imposed on them: the United States government systematically destroyed their traditional eating habits starting in the 1860s.
âThey burned all the food, they burned all the crops, they destroyed all the fruit trees. And they burned down all the houses, then they started sending everyone to concentration camps, âDeal explained, referring to the long march, during which the American cavalry forced men, women and men. Navajo children to travel hundreds of kilometers.
âThey gave us shortening, lard, at the concentration camp. They gave us flour, sugar, salt, âhe said, noting the high rates of diabetes and obesity among members of his community.
But despite this effort to destroy their culture, the entrepreneurs of the Navajo Nation are not giving up. In fact, they are building a new food system that grows and distributes food locally. The microgreens, carrots and herbs that Deal lovingly arranged in a cute plastic box for sale at Rocky Ridge Gas & Grocery were grown on a Navajo-owned farm called Ch’ishie Farms near Leupp, Arizona.
On a recent afternoon in a setting sun, Ch’ishie Farms owner Tyrone Thompson picked kale and radishes in neat rows in his greenhouse and put them in a crumpled paper bag so that Deal could bring them back to the market.
“It’s just a return to our roots and, you know, our traditional methods, as well as embracing innovative methods like hoop houses.” Thompson has already helped his community build more than 40 greenhouses.
But progress is slow, food is expensive, and bureaucratic red tape is especially sticky on the Navajo Nation. Bleu Adams is a chef and restaurateur who says she has seen food prices, especially meat, triple and quadruple due to being “the bottom rung of the supply chain.”
âIt was very intentional. We had a lot of natural resources that businesses, including the federal government, wanted, âshe explained.
Like Thompson and Deal, Adams asserts his Indigenous identity with food.
âThere is so much you can do with Native cuisine,â said Adams, who is Hidatsa, Mandan and DinÃ©, sitting in the kitchen of her closed restaurant, Blackbird Brunch. “It’s both been there since time immemorial, but it’s also like this burgeoning food scene.” Blackbird Brunch has been forced to shut down the pandemic, but it has big plans for the space.
She’s trying to build a coworking space and a small business incubator called âIndigihub,â with fast high-speed internet access (not to mention electricity and water, which many Navajo do not have) .
Back at Rocky Ridge Gas & Market, Simonson tries to fix the aging building and hopes to someday have his own hoop house on site.
“There has to be constant education about food, and how, you know, food really is medicine.” said Simonson, who wants his customers to buy more broccoli and fewer bags of crisps. “And so it’s going to be a slow process.”