Water First! Learning Communities

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Community Commons

A push toward consuming more water and fewer sugar-sweetened beverages is the latest growing trend in public health interventions. But when access to clean and safe drinking water is not always easy – or readily available, a different approach is required.

In the Southwest Native cultures, water is life and is highly respected through song, prayer, and celebration. For eight tribes and Native organizations in Arizona and New Mexico, the goal of eliminating the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages by increasing the consumption of safe drinking water or promoting breastfeeding is their way of ensuring children are developing healthy habits early on. Beginning in October 2016, the NB3 Foundation has awarded funding up to $100,000 each over two and a half years to the Water First! Learning Community, a collection of eight groups hoping to build on the knowledge of their communities to catalyze and inspire healthy habits in children.

The Navajo Nation, one organization in Arizona, and seven tribes or organizations in New Mexico are focused on learning from their community and bringing that knowledge back to their cohort to move forward – together. Integrated into each group’s budget is a portion of funding solely to cover travel. The foundation asks the groups to meet eight times over the course of the grant period in order to share information from their respective sectors to remedy any gaps in knowledge.

Michelle Gutierrez, program officer for the NB3 Foundation explained that the community partnerships are about learning and truly understanding what’s going on in each community.

“Phase two of this project is about planting seeds in our communities as to why this work matters,” Gutierrez said. “So many of these communities are already doing this work, but in different ways. We want to show that there isn’t a one size fits all solution, and encourage people to figure out what works best for their community.”

Check out the work being done in the eight learning communities:

COPE – Gallup, NM
The Community Outreach and Patient Empowerment (COPE) Project, a nonprofit collaboration between the Navajo Nation, Indian Health Service (IHS), and Harvard University and health care resources, seeks to eliminate health disparities and improve the well-being of American Indians and Alaska Natives.

The organization seeks to increase access to safe drinking water among families with preschool children. Working with families and Head Start Program staff, community health representatives, Navajo Chapter House leaders and tribal leaders, COPE hopes to empower Navajo families and their children to shift toward healthier, available choices. In 2015, the Navajo Nation passed the Healthy Diné Nation Act, a historical 2% tax on unhealthy food, including sugary beverages, which helps direct revenue back into community development, health and wellness. The tribal council also passed a tax exemption on all healthy foods sold on the Navajo Nation.

Through coordinated strategies that target settings where children spend their time, in early child education centers and their homes, COPE plans to create environments with increased access to safe drinking water to help overcome childhood obesity.

Five Sandoval Indian Pueblos, Inc. – Zia, Sandia, Santa Ana, Cochiti and Jemez Pueblos
The Five Sandoval Indian Pueblos is a nonprofit organization serving five Pueblos in Sandoval County north of Albuquerque, NM, providing employment, education, and health and human services under the values of sovereignty, traditional culture and community integrity.

With 68% of the adult population in Sandoval County classified as overweight or obese, the organization is working within the community on prevention of chronic disease by enhancing availability of a healthy food and beverages. Sugary beverages, including soda, flavored punches and sweetened milk products, are currently the first choice at convenience stores, which are the most accessible to Pueblo members.

The organization’s goals are to decrease the prevalence of sugary beverages in the WIC community in favor of water and appropriate beverages, such as plain milk, herbal and traditional teas. Five Sandoval also plans to improve the overall health status of the community through nutrition education and collaboration with local food stores. The organization also will have health conversations in the community to promote conscious decisions on foods presented in Pueblo activities, schools and in local stores. Additionally, Five Sandoval plans to enhance breastfeeding acceptance by employers in the community.

Jemez Pueblo – Jemez Pueblo, NM
About 50 miles northwest of Albuquerque, NM, Jemez Pueblo is the only Towa speaking community in the world. The Pueblo’s religion and language play a crucial role in the village’s core values. Farming continues to remain at the heart of the community as it has for hundreds of years; passed on from one generation to the next, creating part of the community’s cultural subsistence. Today, there are fewer families farming and fewer children not fully understanding the history of farming and the integral role it plays in a healthy lifestyle.

Jemez’s Indigenous Action: Policies and Practice Project will focus on applying indigenous knowledge to policy and practice to shift the paradigm to community-based systems, environmental changes and intervention in Jemez Pueblo.

Indigenous Action will pick up from a 2012 CDC-funded project to continue instituting wellness policies promoting breastfeeding in the workplace, and eliminating or reducing sugar-sweetened beverages. Targeting children ages 0 to 8 and their families, the project will partner with Jemez Health and Human Services, the Department of Education, and the Jemez Community Development Corporation to help devise the best plan or intervention possible to create an environment that supports healthy living.

Ramah Navajo School Board – Ramah, NM
The Ramah Navajo School Board is a nonprofit organization that has 250 students, K-12 in its Pine Hill Schools. RNSB is located in the Ramah Navajo community about 130 miles west of Albuquerque, NM. The school community strives to promote positive health and behavior choices because the physical and mental health of the community members is a top priority.

The nonprofit’s goals include the development and implementation of policies that eliminate student exposure to sweetened beverages during the school day and a health curriculum taught by a youth educator, emphasizing the link to obesity and nutritionally related diseases.

The school community will also promote safe drinking water as a more beneficial alternative to sugary beverages. The school will also purchase safe drinking water and dispensers for students to drink throughout the school day.

Santo Domingo Pueblo – Santo Domingo Pueblo, NM Located 25 miles south of Santa Fe, NM, Santo Domingo Pueblo is one of 20 Pueblos in New Mexico, a community considered one of the mostconservative in customs and culture, with tribal leaders refusing gaming as a source of economic development. From time immemorial, the Pueblo’s core values have been the tradition of farming, their connection to land and the nurturance she bears has been core to maintaining the balance and well-being of the Santo Domingo people. Children are losing this connection, resulting in diabetes, obesity and resiliency inherent to Pueblo identity. Many families who traditionally spend their summers in the garden now have unhealthy diets.

The overarching goal of the S.P.L.A.S.H Project is to work in partnership with the community to reinvigorate the consumption of natural and healthy drinks. S.P.L.A.S.H. will aim to promote a holistic, community-based approach that will ensure children and the community have access to safe drinking water and healthy food at tribal meetings, community events, local schools and all public places. Additionally, the Pueblo plans to promote breastfeeding and create a tribal resolution to encourage and advocate for health and wellness policies at tribal meetings and community events.

The STAR School – Flagstaff, AZ
Serving the Arizona communities of Leupp, Birdsprings and Tolani Lake, a population of 6,000, the Service To All Relations  (STAR) School is located near the southwest boundary of the Navajo Nation. The school has built a philosophy of teaching and learning on the ancient Navajo value of being ready and willing to help and be of service to our relatives, which includes all of the community, the land and the water. There is a wait-list to get in the school. Once in, students are required to develop a community service project. The school’s parent organization has provided low-cost, sustainable homes in the community and partners with a local food bank for food distribution.

The school’s parent organization owns and operates one of the main community wells and has started to develop a water institute where local water is filtered to make pure drinking water. The organization also plans to make clean water readily available to all youth in the three Navajo communities. And after assessing the attitudes toward sugary beverages, they plan to develop and implement an educational program to decrease the consumption of sugary drinks and increase the desirability of water, traditional tea or berry-infused water among youth.

Tamaya Wellness Center – Santa Ana Pueblo, NM
Santa Ana Pueblo, located along the Rio Grande northwest of Albuquerque, NM, has a strong agricultural tradition. Established in 2006, the six-staffed Tamaya Youth and Recreation program serves more than 120 youth in year round programming. With its new Tamaya Wellness Center equipped with a teen center, large kitchen and multipurpose room, the youth program has increased opportunities to interact with the community to increase health and wellness.

With the understanding that sugary beverages contribute to the epidemic of obesity and diabetes in the Pueblo, their project aims to change community attitudes that sugary beverages are necessary to every event, the goal being that sugary beverages are the exception, not the rule. Another project goal is to start to change a societal norm that there has to be Kool-Aid on the table and community attitudes that sugary beverages aren’t harmless through education, marketing, policy and accessibility.

Zuni Youth Enrichment Project – Zuni, NM
The Zuni Youth Enrichment Project (ZYEP) is a nonprofit organization serving Zuni Pueblo located in northwest New Mexico.  Created in 2008 when an IHS doctor discovered Zuni children didn’t have many activities during the summer, ZYEP provides traditional activities, competitive sports, such as soccer, community gardens and nutritional programs for more than 200 children.  The Pueblo’s remoteness has helped tribal members retain their language and culture systems, which has an emphasis on the extended family, often resulting in several generations living together or in close proximity.  Though there is a small grocer, a restaurant and three small convenience stores, many residents travel 45 minutes to buy food and other basic needs.

Acknowledging childhood obesity as a major issue in Zuni with sugary beverages playing a large role ZYEP will work to understand barriers to water consumption and community feelings toward sugary drinks. The H4H project will also promote and increase access to water on the reservation and reduce the consumption of SSBs. H4H will create water sustainability by providing all youth sports league participants with water bottles and access to fresh safe drinking water, as well as provide drinking and filling stations at the future youth community park, creating ease of access to all community members.

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