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Navajo Nation: Native American Community Academy

Early one morning in April 2013 a white van pulls into the parking lot of an Albuquerque grocery store and a group of teenagers piles out and heads into the store, fanning out in different directions. The students attend the Native American Community Academy (NACA), a charter school for 6-12th graders, which has joined the Alliance for a Healthier Generation’s Healthy Schools Program. The school is small with 380 students and is temporarily located in a field of portable classrooms while it waits for a permanent location. Students at NACA represent more than 30 tribal groups, although predominately Navajo.

The task ahead of the group visiting the grocery store, an 11th-grade civics class, is to purchase food to prepare and serve to staff at the school. The students want to prove that a healthy meal with more traditional, Native American foods can be provided for no more than two dollars per person. The civics class worked together to complete the Healthy Schools Program Inventory, an assessment tool on the Alliance’s website that helps schools identify the strengths and gaps of health policies and programs. When a completed Inventory has been submitted the website provides instant feedback and shows what steps can be taken to improve in areas such as health education, physical education, school meals, and employee wellness.

With this data in tow, school wellness groups are encouraged to create an Action Plan that outlines feasible goals to work towards for the school year. For the students at NACA, the data gave them the information they needed to ask for specific changes in their school lunch program, beyond anecdotes and complaints.

Although NACA is part of the Albuquerque Public School District, the school’s charter status gives it the ability to hire its own school meal provider. The school does participate in the U. S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National School Lunch Program, so the meals served must meet the nutrition standards of the updated Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. However, the students feel like the current caterer is not providing healthy and tasty meals and the principal has encouraged the class to do its research and put together a Request for Proposals (RFP) to identify a new provider. A school meal advisor from the Healthy Schools Program will be helping the students through the complexities of the process.

To test out some recipe ideas and to build support for the overhaul, the students are serving lunch to school staff and administrators. On the menu for the day; vegetarian chili with beans, blue corn meal mush, an organic fruit cup (strawberries, kiwi, mango, melons) and a dish that they call the “Beez Kneez” which has squash, corn, green chili, garlic and onions. When asked why they chose this name, slang for something that is great, or the best, Isaiah Melk simply said, “Because that is what it is.”

The class has been reading books and watching documentaries about nutrition and agriculture and discussing behavioral economics and how to encourage better choices. This is where they got the idea to give their vegetable side dish a fun name. Melk said he has been eating the “Beez Kneez” at home frequently because he and some of his friends are experimenting with a vegan diet.

Student Tracy Martinez explains that her blue cornmeal mush is a traditional Navajo dish made out of blue cornmeal, juniper ash, water, and “time.” Martinez explains that the ash is a reactant that helps to bring out the calcium and iron from the cornmeal and the Navajo believe that it also serves as a blessing for the dish. She said she would like to see a school lunch that incorporates healthier meals that are indigenous to the Navajo culture while also increasing the frequency of salads.

Humanities teacher Emily Beenen was involved in creating the healthy snack policy for the school and is supporting the class in its efforts to improve the lunch program. She shared that when it came to writing the healthy snack policy, the staff wanted to focus on what snacks should be, rather than what they shouldn’t eat. “That is really anything plant based, that came from the energy of the sun. If you can’t pronounce it, you shouldn’t eat it. Those were our guiding rules.”

Teachers at NACA use a “wellness wheel” and are expected to regularly check in with all students to see how they are feeling in four areas; community and relationships, social/emotional wellness, physical wellness and intellectual wellness. “The idea is to show them how these areas are all connected,” said Beenen. “If you are fighting with friends and performing poorly in school, or if you are feeling tired and not eating well, this helps students make the connection and learn about balance.”

Civics teacher Josh Krause believes it is his obligation to create authentic learning experiences in order to develop 21st-century skills. The Healthy Schools Program Inventory gave his students the tool they needed to assess what was actually happening in their lunch program and then make the case for change based on best practices and research. It provided real-time data and empowered the group to seek out alternatives.

What is both exciting and nerve-wracking for this teacher and his class is that the school principal has actually charged the class with finding a new lunch provider for the next school year. “It’s definitely a daunting task as a facilitator, but with help from the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, we have access to resources and staff that are helping us move forward.”