Ideas, Examples to Reduce Sugary Drinks Among Native American Children at First Healthy Beverage Summit

From a junk food tax, to traditional teas, to changing shopping habits, participants in the first summit discussed ideas, challenges and current local and national progress in reducing consumption of sugary drinks by Native American children.

“Water is sacred. Sodas have become part of our tradition. It’s time to decolonize your drink,” said Andrea Pepin, Zuni Youth Enrichment Project nutrition education coordinator, quoting a fellow colleague.

Pepin was among 125 people who attended Notah Begay III Foundation’s Healthy Beverage Summit to find ways to reduce the consumption of soda, sports, fruit drinks and other sugared beverages among Native youth. The sold out February 8th gathering at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque, N.M., was the first of three for grant recipients, health advocates and others interested in promoting water and breastfeeding as a first choice in Native communities.

The event was part of the Water First! projecta 2 ½ year NB3 Foundation initiative partnering with nine Native communities across New Mexico and the Navajo Nation to combat sugared drinks. Click here for a full listing of the grantees and a summary of their projects.

The work becomes more eminent as sweetened drinks now represent the biggest source of added sugar in American diets. The beverages have been linked to obesity, diabetes, tooth decay, and liver and heart disease.

“We are having a serious epidemic of both obesity and diabetes,” said Keynote Speaker Dr. Jim Krieger, Executive Director of Health Food America, a national nonprofit that uses science to drive change in policy and industry practice.

He said obesity in America has been growing since the 1980s, with an increase in diabetes in the 90s. “We’re seeing it level off a bit but we’ve never seen anything like this grow so big so fast,” Krieger said.

Native Americans have been disproportionately affected. In New Mexico alone, 50 percent or one out of two Native American third-graders are either overweight or obese, according to the New Mexico Department of Health.

What’s causing the epidemic is that Americans simply are consuming too much sugar, according to Krieger. Forty-six percent of sugars and added calories in American diets come from sweetened beverages, which have no nutritional benefit. In one study of Navajo students, 86 percent of girls and 93 percent of boys were drinking at least one soda daily.

Read about how one of our grant recipients is reducing sugary drinks

 One way to reduce consumption is through education, such as the warning labels put on tobacco products, or decreasing the availability of sugary drinks through policy, such as requiring supermarkets to put healthier beverages near the cashier isles.

Another way to diminish sugary drinks, Krieger said, is an added tax on the beverages, something Berkeley and Mexico have done. Berkeley, Calif., the first U.S. city to implement such a tax, saw a 21 percent decrease in consumption in low-income communities only after five months. Mexico, the first country in the world to pass a tax, saw overall consumption decline 12 percent and a 17 percent reduction in low-income communities.

The Navajo Nation, the first tribe in the country to pass a 2 percent tax on “junk food,” food with no nutritional value, projects $2 million annually from its tax, which will go to each of the 34 chapter houses, local governing districts, for community wellness projects, such as farming and community trails.

Closing Keynote Navajo Vice President Jonathan Nez, a leading example of how Native people can live a healthy lifestyle after dropping 300 pounds and becoming an avid runner, said the Diné and others need to remind themselves about the traditional ways of overcoming adversity, fighting what he called the “monsters” of the 21st century—diabetes and heart disease.

The Diné used to get up early, heard sheep or farm in the scorching desert sun, and survived the Long Walk, a 300-mile trek Navajos made from their homelands to an internment camp. These traditions or events provide a great teaching of overcoming and resilience, Nez said.

“You have the ability to change your life for good,” Nez said, sharing his story as an obese Shonto Chapter community leader who would try to encourage young people to live healthier lives until a teenager’s words tore into him, “Every time we see you, you get bigger and bigger.” The comment was the impetus for Nez to start walking, which turned into a love of running. He recently started training for an ultra marathon at 100k.

“When you change and when your family changes, you have the ability to change your community. You cannot help somebody if you cannot take care of yourself,” he said.

One big step in taking care of ourselves and our children is to look at how often and how much we consume sugary drinks, said Justin Kii Huenemann, NB3 President and CEO.

“It is our hope that this summit and the ongoing work of the nine grantees are not only building education and awareness across a broad mix of stakeholders, but will in fact inspire individual, family and community-led changes,” he said.

Thanks to funding from the WK Kellogg Foundation, the NB3 Foundation plans to host the 2nd Healthy Beverage Summit in 2018 building on participant and grantee discussions and ideas, and will continue to provide knowledge, resources and strengthen relationships needed to drive innovative ways to reduce the consumption of sweetened beverages among our Native American children.