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Planting Seeds

Tristan Reader ’89 helped the O’odham community rediscover its traditional foods

Tristan Reader ’89 knows a lot about a little bean called the tepary, the most drought-resistant and heat-tolerant legume on Earth. He discovered teparies in 1995, when he moved onto the Tohono O’odham Nation in southern Arizona and launched a community-based nonprofit, Tohono O’odham Community Action (TOCA), with O’odham basket weaver Terrol Dew Johnson. 

“Every day at TOCA I used the philosophy training I received at Swarthmore to ask fundamental questions,” Reader says. “What does it mean to be human? To be O’odham? To create change? To empower people?”

The Nation, which is roughly the size of Connecticut, crosses the U.S. border into Mexico, and comprises 20,000 residents living in small rural villages. Reader and Johnson came to realize that the issues they wanted to affect all connected to food, including culture, economics, the environment, youth empowerment, and especially health. The O’odham have the highest rate of Type 2 diabetes of any ethnic group in the world.

“In 1960, not a single person on the Tohono O’odham Nation had Type 2 diabetes,” says Reader. “Today, 60 percent of O’odham adults over age 35 have the disease, and it appears in children as young as 6.”

Reader says this public health crisis stems largely from the disruption of the traditional O’odham food system. The Nation was food self-sufficient up until World War II. But by 1960, most O’odham depended on the Commodity Assistance Act allotments of free food to Native American communities that introduced lard, flour, and sugar into the O’odham diet—to devastating effect. 

TOCA began modestly with a community garden and eventually established farms. Reader and Johnson developed training programs and internships to teach young people traditional O’odham farming practices. In the process, Reader became passionate about food sovereignty, advocating for a return to traditional O’odham foods like tepary beans to help combat diabetes and obesity, promote food security, and also reconnect community members to their culture.    

“To be Tohono O’odham—a desert person—means to be connected to these foods. Their songs, rituals, and culture revolve around them,” Reader says. “The O’odham believe the Milky Way was made when Coyote scattered white tepary beans in the sky. There are no songs about fry bread, but there are songs and legends about O’odham corn.”

TOCA hosts planting and harvesting festivals and works in schools on the Nation to teach youths about traditional foods. It runs farmers markets to make native foods more widely available, and in 2009, it opened the Desert Rain Café. Located in the Nation’s capital of Sells, Ariz., and a few doors down from the Nation’s sole supermarket, the café offers a menu of healthy dishes made with traditional foods—things like tepary quesadillas, O’odham squash enchiladas, and fruit salads sprinkled with desert-harvested chia seeds and drizzled with prickly pear cactus syrup. TOCA also works with the schools to include traditional foods on cafeteria menus.

In 2015, Reader left TOCA to finish a Ph.D. on indigenous communities and food sovereignty at the Center for Agroecology, Water, and Resilience at Coventry University in the U.K. He is optimistic about the Tohono O’odham Nation’s food-health future because a growing number of the Nation’s new leaders came up through TOCA and are advocates for food sovereignty. They see the connections between traditional foods and cultural, economic, and physical well-being. 

Reader’s favorite example is CissiMarie Juan, who began volunteering after school in the TOCA community garden at age 7. By 9, she declared that one day she would run TOCA. Ten years later, she was developing and leading TOCA programs as a paid staffer. Today, she is the head of the Nation’s Youth Services division.

“From the beginning, TOCA was never just about physically planting seeds,” says Reader. “We were planting seeds of change and empowering people to become strong, positive leaders.”