Katherine Ly

Project title: Exploring Food Deserts and Food Sovereignty in American Indian and Alaska Native Communities

Degree: MPH | Program: Environmental and Occupational Health (EOH) | Project type: Practicum
Completed in: 2017 | Faculty advisor: William E. Daniell


Nearly every American Indian reservation in the United States is classified by the USDA as a food desert, an area with limited access to fresh, healthy, and affordable foods. This suggests that food security, or the access to safe, nutritious, and life-supporting foods is a problem in many American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) communities. Food deserts are often indicators of food insecurity. Residents of food deserts are at higher risk of developing not only chronic metabolic diseases, but also environmentally triggered conditions such as asthma. Evolution of the native food system after colonial contact by Europeans was influenced by relocation policies and changes to the Native landscape that shifted historical food sources towards reliance on outside sources of unhealthy foods. As a result of forced dietary change from traditional food sources and dependence on low quality diets, AI/ANs have developed some of the highest rates of diabetes and obesity. Forced displacement of AI/ANs to urban centers with the false promise of better opportunities and jobs further subjects Natives to systemic inequities that lead to food insecurity and health disparities. Food sovereignty is the process of reclaiming foods and determining food systems. Rights to decide culturally relevant foods is a necessary precursor to food security. Efforts to decolonize Native diets through restoration of food sovereignty demonstrates resilience by strengthening connections to culturally meaningful and healing foods to improve Native health and wellness. Through a literature review and interactive story map, this practicum with the Urban Indian Health Institute explores the definitions, history, emergence of, and implications of food deserts and food sovereignty in American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) communities. In addition, an interactive story map spatializes food deserts in Washington State and presents current efforts to reclaim food sovereignty in Indian Country as inspirational models to combat food deserts in urban areas.