As tribal leaders realize the many benefits of growing food locally, they are working to gain information on best growing practices.

NAU’s Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals is supporting Native American tribes on a new initiative: food systems. Earlier this month, ITEP assisted the Navajo Nation with the launch of its gardening challenge, which encourages tribal members to plant gardens, an integral part of the tribe’s tradition and culture.

“ITEP was honored when the Navajo Nation Vice President, Jonathan Nez, asked for our assistance with this program to serve the Navajo communities,” said ITEP’s Executive Director Ann Marie Chischilly. “We worked collaboratively with many other growing programs and will continue to offer our services,” she added, referring to multiple initiatives within the institute.

“The Navajo Nation president and vice president decided that physical health, public health and the health of the nation are going to be one of the cornerstones of their administration during the remaining three years,” said Ron Hubert, an adjunct professor and consultant for businesses, communities and tribes incorporating strategies for environmental sustainability.

Hubert said Nez was inspired after traveling to Cuba with other Native American tribal leaders. The group viewed Cuba’s practice of using individual and community gardens rather than large industrial farms.

“He realized food is a key for health, especially becoming self sufficient and having access to healthy and affordable food,” Hubert said.

The Navajo Nation is providing seeds for tribal members with the help of Navajo Nation gardening groups, so people can reconnect with their heritage while growing their own food items.

The gardening challenge, taking place throughout the reservation’s 27,000 square miles, is part of a bigger initiative at ITEP, whose leaders decided about a year ago to add food programs to their portfolio of trainings. ITEP supports 500 tribes in the United States with information and training related to renewable energy, water, air quality, climate change and other environmental issues.

Additionally, ITEP is coordinating and facilitating a food systems conference in October for the Navajo Nation to examine progress and develop a three-year implementation plan.