Tohono O’odham Nation

Rebecca Cohen, ’12, reflects on her first year as a FoodCorps service member on the  Tohono O’odham Nation, the second largest Indian reservation in the country.

A few months after graduating back in May of 2012—and I look back, hardly believing it has been a year since then—I packed up most of my worldly possessions into boxes, shipped them across the country, and left the Northeast to resettle in Tucson, Arizona. My senior spring, I applied for and accepted a position as a FoodCorps service member on the Tohono O’odham Nation, the second-largest Indian reservation in the United States. The reservation straddles the US-Mexico border and is approximately the size of the state of Connecticut, with a saguaro cactus to human ratio of 1:1 (or so the vast expanses of desert make it seem).

I spent my senior year researching and writing an environmental and cultural history of traditional agriculture and foodways on the reservation over the course of the 20th century. I was lucky enough to get a research grant from the Harvard University Native American Program to visit Tohono O’odham Community Action (TOCA), a grassroots non-profit committed to creating a healthy, culturally vital and sustainable community on the Tohono O’odham Nation. Luckily, TOCA is a service site for FoodCorps, a new national non-profit that places service members in limited-resource communities to connect kids to real food and help them grow up healthy. Serving with FoodCorps gave me the chance to take my thesis work a step further and actively become a part of the movement to revitalize traditional foodways in Native communities. Of course, the experience has also been much more than that.

I have learned a lot about myself during my first year of service here. I learned that I do not, in fact, dislike teaching children (which, until I started my service term, I believed to be shamefully true, and which I vehemently hid during my FoodCorps application process). I learned that, as a complete surprise to myself, I quickly came to love my students with an intensity only matched by their unconditional love in return. I learned that I can handle Sonoran Desert 100-plus degree heat into December but become whiny and shivery during Sonoran Desert 5-week, 40 degree winter. I learned that in many ways I had been subtly conditioned over the past four years to believe that an Ivy League education is evidence and endorsement of one’s capabilities. I  began to deconstruct this notion with every passing day, as I witnessed that intelligence, creativity, and potential to change the world had nothing to do with what college you went to—or if you went to college at all.

Every day I learn something new, many of which are only tangentially related to food. But every day serving with TOCA has also strengthened the clarity of my vision of what our food system can and should look like in this country and has given me the chance to see and feel its current inadequacies in ways I did not expect. I have given extra beans to a student who quietly took me aside to tell me that his mom doesn’t have enough money to buy food for them all the time. I have seen the dialysis centers in Sells, the main town on the reservation where TOCA’s office is located,  heard co-workers describe the pain of losing family members to diabetes— and describe the anger that accompanied the even more painful realization that  they didn’t have to go, that their deaths could have been prevented. In many small ways, I have a much deeper and more realistic understanding of the role food plays in people’s lives today on the reservation and off. And I am driven to work harder toward improving our country’s food system because of this.

I highly recommend anyone who is interested in working within the food justice movement to apply to serve with FoodCorps. But I also recommend it to anyone who likes working with children, or is particularly interested in nutrition and health, or just loves to garden. The day-to-day work focuses on FoodCorps’ three pillars: teaching food/nutrition education in the classroom (very broadly speaking, since my co-service member and I have the freedom to develop our own curriculum. We are in the process of finishing up a new year-long K-2 gardening, cooking, and culture curriculum that we spent the year teaching in an after-school program twice a week); maintaining and running programming in school gardens; and working with the school food service provider in the cafeteria to increase the amount of local and high-quality foods served on the menu. No two days of work have been the same, and I would not have it any other way. To clarify, the FoodCorps experience varies widely between different service sites. I am sure what I do here on the reservation is quite different from what the days look like at the service sites in Boston, or in rural Maine, or in Mississippi. If you are serious about applying, definitely check out the list of service sites on the FoodCorps website to see which one you seem drawn to.

I am excited to stay here for a second year of service with TOCA. There are so many projects in the works—garden expansions, compost tea experiments, parent recruitment, pomegranate trees to plant, Food Justice workshops to develop. Coming up next month, I get to participate in the annual bahidaj (saguaro fruit) gathering camp, continuing a tradition that stretches back many, many generations in O’odham families. My co-workers and I will sleep out in the desert for a long weekend, spending the mornings knocking ripe saguaro fruit off the tops of the impossibly tall cacti with dried saguaro ribs and the afternoons cooking them down in enormous pots over fires to produce sitol, saguaro fruit syrup. This is just one example of the incredible things I have been able to participate in during my time here. I look forward to experiencing many more over the next fourteen months.

Read more about the FoodCorps program at https://foodcorps.org/

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