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Partnering to Build Capacity and Improve Health Outcomes in a Native American Community

| California

Jan 04, 2022

Building partnerships and fostering community engagement practices is an essential component of CalFresh Healthy Living (SNAP-Ed in California). These practices support local sustainable activities. CalFresh Healthy Living, University of California (CFHL, UC), in coordination with University of California Cooperative Extension (CFHL, UCCE) in Riverside County, has been working collaboratively with the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indian Tribe since 2018. Together, they are advancing sustainable community health initiatives that can lead to more positive health outcomes.

Native American communities have experienced historical trauma (emotional response to past painful events). These experiences have had devastating effects on health:

  • 60 reservations or more are “food deserts”, lacking access to affordable fresh fruits and vegetables. 
  • 400% more likely to experience food insecurity.
  • 1.7 times the rate of diagnosed diabetes, (15.0%) compared with all U.S. adults (8.6%).
  • 1.8 times higher mortality rate during the COVID pandemic.

Building trust in communities that have experienced trauma takes time. Ongoing communication with local leaders and members is necessary. Solutions to address health disparities must be community-led and the “right fit” for community needs. By working closely with the tribal grant administration and leadership, CFHL, UCCE helps the tribe secure grant funding to support projects in community health and wellness. This is an example of a multi-sector collaboration, which leads to advances in community health of indigenous people.

Additional special project funding is often needed to allow flexibility in program implementation. In the past three years, the CFHL, UCCE Riverside Cooperative Extension Advisor worked with the Torres Martinez Tribe leadership to collaborate with the following organizations:

  • Public Health Institute Center for Wellness & Nutrition and UC Davis Center for Regional Change: to implement a tribal youth participatory action research (YPAR) project (USDA/CDSS funding)
  • UC Agriculture and Natural Resources (UCANR) and Coachella Valley Unified School District: to explore a farm to school partnership (USDA Farm to School Planning Grant) 
  • California Rural Indian Health Board (CRIHB): to facilitate discussions regarding the tribal community’s interest in food sovereignty (CDC ACORNS funding)
A'Avutem (Elders) garden planting and harvesting in 2020

This multi-sector collaboration is generating interest in community health and wellness. 

  • Youth in the YPAR project (11 youth ages 12-17) explored the community food environment. They also raised questions about the lack of healthy food availability. The YPAR project contributed to the decision to reinstate the Tribal Youth Council. This council incorporates youth feedback in the design of community programs. 
  • Over 30 community members of all ages attended a farm tour (37 people). In addition, 32 tribal members participated in a garden planting event. 
  • The Tribal Council led efforts to distribute USDA Farmers to Families Produce Boxes (1600 boxes to 400 families) during the pandemic. 
  • Moreover, the Tribal government recently signed an agreement to support the establishment of the Community Wellness Committee. This committee will help community representatives get trained to become health advocates for the ACORNS project. ACORNS (Advancing California Opportunities to Renew Native Health Systems) is a 5-year project “to implement culturally-tailored policy, systems, and environmental changes, and clinical-community linkage strategies that address chronic diseases in Native communities.”

An article from Feeding America honoring Native American Heritage Month in November 2020 states: “For many Native Americans, food sovereignty is the ultimate long-term solution to eliminate food insecurity.” Food sovereignty is the right of people: 

  • to define their own food systems, 
  • to have control over their land and cultural resources, 
  • to preserve traditional practices, and 
  • to have access to traditional foods. 

CalFresh Healthy Living, UC and its local UCCE Riverside affiliate is striving to support this movement through work with the Torres Martinez tribal leadership. Together, they are building local capacity through the Community Wellness Committee and other community engagement practices.

SNAP-Ed Evaluation Framework Indicators include ST8, MT7, MT8e.

YPAR community food mapping and interactive online data search, 2018

State Contacts:
Andra Nicoli, CalFresh Healthy Living, UC Strategic Initiatives
Kamal Khaira, CalFresh Healthy Living, UC Director
Local Contact Name: Chutima Ganthavorn, UC Cooperative Extension Advisor, CalFresh Healthy Living Program 

CalFresh Healthy Living, UCCE Nutrition Education Program
CalFresh Website

CalFresh Healthy Living logo, University of California logo, University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources logo