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Navajo Nation children embrace cafeteria's native foods

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Roz Brown

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(New Mexico News Connection) Across the globe, hunger is an enormous threat to children. To combat the problem, one rural school district in northwest New Mexico is bringing culturally-appropriate items to the school cafeteria menu.

Zach Ben, founder of the Navajo Nation's Bidii Baby Foods, was a new dad during the pandemic when baby foods were in short supply at grocery stores. Ben has received funding from Save the Children's Rural Child Hunger Research and Innovation Lab.

He supplies his corn to schools in the Farmington school district where they are used to create breakfast and lunch meals familiar to indigenous children.

"They prefer meals that are a part of their heritage and culture and being able to incorporate those first foods back into our plates there in our children's cafeterias," Ben explained. "This is how the Innovation Lab is allowing us to bridge those gaps and prevent rural child hunger."

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Ben farms 40 acres along New Mexico's San Juan River and said he is working to scale up his operation and build capacity. In addition to Save the Children, the "New Mexico Grown" local food purchasing program supports the project. The Farmington school district is more than 35 percent Native American.

Esther Liew, food security projects adviser for Save the Children, said students have responded favorably when offered food choices containing ingredients common to their diet, such as blue corn meal or kneel-down bread.

"The fact that Bidii Baby Foods has been able to sell corn to make some of these foods, and they are on the school menu, just shows that schools are able to provide both nutritious and culturally-appropriate foods for the students," Liew emphasized.

A sixth-generation farmer, Ben added he is now growing lots of corn varieties perhaps unfamiliar to the average American.

"What we would call Navajo Indian white corn, we have Oaxacan green corn, we have Navajo yellow corn and Santa Ana Pueblo blue corn," Ben outlined.

Save the Children's lab was created to find inventive ways to reduce rural child hunger.