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Growing Advocates in the Cuba Community Garden

100_0481-1Two young Navajo sisters, Lisa Cowboy and Tamara Lewis, live with their mother, father, and siblings in a mobile home in Cuba. Their access to fresh fruits and vegetables is limited. This is common for many American Indians in New Mexico who suffer 2.7 times more adult obesity and 2.1 times more overweight youth than their non-Hispanic white counterparts (2). On their daily walk through their neighborhood, the girls would pass by the Cuba community garden. After seeing the energy and excitement at a spring garden clean up event, they asked their mother if they could help out. The sisters then begged their mother to reserve a garden bed so they too could start growing food. The Healthy Kids, Healthy Cuba (HKHC) Project Coordinator, Shari Smoker, recognized the girls’ dedication to the garden and gave them some cameras to help her document the garden’s growth. Lisa and Tamara took pictures of the garden morning, noon, and even at night. They planted green chili, beans, squash, and sweet peas with the rest of their family. Thanks to influx of fresh food, their mother did not have to use the food pantry during the entire harvest season. Lisa and Tamara’s newly found passion began to grow beyond their thriving garden plot.

Growing Empowered
The sisters started small, convincing other family members, friends, and classmates to get involved in the community garden. When 5th grade class elections rolled around, Lisa decided to run. Lisa ran and won on the platform to bring healthier foods to the school menu, as well as more sports and physical education opportunities to help kids be more active in school. Tamara and Lisa took advantage of the school cafeteria salad bar to convince their classmates that eating salad was cool. Through the Step into Cuba program (a community partner of Healthy Kids, Healthy Cuba, which focuses on promoting healthy lifestyles through physical activity), a yoga class was started in the community. The students became involved so they could get more exercise in addition to eating healthier. Additionally, the family began to walk and hike on the Fisher Trail in Cuba with other community members.

Lisa and Tamara’s advocacy efforts began to move beyond their family and school.  Along with the assistance of both Smoker and former HKHC Project Director Susan DeFrancesco, they visited the New Mexico State Legislature in Santa Fe to meet with State Senator Lynda Lovejoy and State Representative James Madalena. Senator Lovejoy commended the youth and spoke about the importance of growing food together and getting back to the traditional Navajo ways. She talked with Lisa about the importance of her job on the student council and likened Lisa’s job to her own. The sisters then took their advocacy efforts to the nation’s capital, writing letters to their Senators and U.S. Congressman, along with First Lady Michelle Obama, describing their work and inviting them to visit the Village of Cuba. The letters were hand delivered by Susan DeFranceso and Dr. Richard Kozoll of Cuba during a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation-sponsored advocacy training that included legislative meetings. The girls wrote Michelle Obama, “Being Navajo we [as a people] have diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity, we are trying not to go down that path like our family did… the Fisher trail, community garden, and yoga that have started give us young people in this town a reason to go outside and eat things that are good for us…We are writing because you inspire us as girls, we want to do good for this world.”  A couple months later the sisters excitedly opened their mailbox to find a response from Michelle Obama, congratulating them on their efforts and urging them to, “keep up the good work…to get ready, get excited, and get moving!”

Thanks in part to their letters; U.S. Congressman Ben Ray Lujan visited Cuba where he praised the children for their involvement in community projects and the Cuba Community Garden for bringing the community together. The Congressman witnessed other HKHC initiatives and was impressed with all of the efforts Cuba and its residents have put forth to improve health and safety of community members.  Smoker expressed her pride in Lisa and Tamara’s family. “These children are an inspiration.  They continually volunteer in the community for the Cuba Community Garden and at school, and are motivated each day to improve their community, their health, and learn new things. I really think it was important for the family to meet their local representatives and for our state legislators to learn about the great things going on in Cuba.”  The other children of Cuba are also taking notice. As Tamara and Lisa have become more popular; other children are looking up to them and following their healthy habits.

Learning and Teaching
Lisa and Tamara have come a long way since joining the Cuba Community Garden.  Before getting involved in the garden, they rarely ate vegetables. As they started growing vegetables, they began incorporating them into more and more of their meals. Smoker recalls the moment the girls fell in love with fresh produce: “When the girls first started gardening with their family everything seemed to be growing fine except the sweet peas. Their mother asked the girls what they thought was wrong and they replied that rabbits must be eating the sweet peas. Later, the girls told their mom that they had actually been going into the garden at night to eat the sweet peas.” In addition to adding healthier foods to their diets, the girls have become advocates for removing unhealthy food and drink at home. The girls are teaching their little sister Chloe how to eat healthy and have asked their mother to stop buying sugary drinks because they want to be healthy and drink water instead. They have also come up with tasty ways to prepare veggies. Their favorite dish their mom cooks for them consists of Swiss chard, spinach, and bacon. Tamara and Lisa share the recipe with everyone they meet.

Sources
1. U.S. Census Bureau estimate for 2009. Available here.
2. New Mexico Department of Health (August 2010). Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities Report Card. Available here.

September, 2012