For the past three years, TOCA has been working to introduce and expand the use of traditional Tohono O'odham foods served in school cafeterias on the Tohono O'odham Nation. These traditional foods are particularly healthy and culturally important. This is especially important given the high rates of diabetes and childhood obesity within the community. Indeed, currently 76% of Tohono O'odham 6th-8th graders are overweight or obese (±85 %ile). Improving school meals is particularly important given that so many children eat both breakfast an lunch at school.
By agreement between the local school district, Sodexo (the school food service provider) and TOCA, 1000 students are served healthy, local, traditional foods at least once per week throughout the school year. In an exciting development, however, certain traditional food choices (e.g., the brown tepary bean quesadilla in whole wheat tortilla) has proven to be so popular, that Sodexo decided independently to add it to their regular menu options several additional days per month. This indicates that the children in the schools desire to eat these healthy, traditional foods. Moreover, it also demonstrates that when such a demand exists, even corporate food service providers recognize and respond in a positive way. However, without the initial pressure and resources from TOCA and our partners for Sedexo to make these changes, they would not have had the motivation or capacity to try such a pilot program.
In addition, to providing these traditional, healthy food choices to students, education and outreach about traditional foods, nutrition and culture has been significantly expanded. During the last year, TOCA has: conducted/coordinated over 150 educational activities during the school day (ranging from traditional food samples and providing nutrition information, to teaching ceremonial songs and legends that relate to traditional foods); developed a set of educational/curriculum resources and lesson plans for use by teachers within the schools; conducted cultural activities (e.g., telling legends about traditional foods) to over 500 students; and conducted monthly traditional foods tastings and educational activities at each school within the district.
There is still a long way to go in ensuring that TOCA continues to explore new ways of improving school nutrition and increasing the use of traditional foods in school meals. Look for exciting developments in the coming months!