Committee hears about food policy development

Noel Lyn Smith

SHEEP SPRINGS – The state Legislature's Indian Affairs Committee learned about a unique report that encourages further development of food policies on the Navajo Nation during a meeting today at the Tooh Haltsooí Chapter house.

State Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque, center, talks about a report on tribal food policies during an Indian Affairs Committee meeting on Tuesday at the Tooh Haltsooí Chapter house in Sheep Springs.

Sonlatsa Jim-Martin, COPE Project REACH policy analyst, talked about a 90-page report completed in collaboration between COPE Project, the Navajo Nation and Harvard University’s Food Law and Policy Clinic.

Part of the reason the document was compiled was to start talking about food issues on the Navajo Nation.

"I hope, as lawmakers, you're able to utilize these resources and this information to help us pass good laws and policies that help the Navajo people,” Jim-Martin said.

The document includes information about traditional foods, food challenges and recommendations for policy changes.

It also examines the challenges facing food production on the Navajo Nation, including overgrazing, water contamination, difficulties surrounding land acquisition and lack of funding for agricultural development.

During Jim-Martin’s presentation, she cited a number of recommendations listed in the report. Those recommendations support dry land farming, monitoring unregulated water sources, creating land management plans and assisting farmers with transitioning land to the next generation.

Sonlatsa Jim-Martin, COPE Project REACH policy analyst, center, talks about local food shed and food policies for the Navajo Nation during an Indian Affairs Committee meeting on Tuesday at the Tooh Haltsooí Chapter house in Sheep Springs.

Another recommendation calls for developing a seed bank on the Navajo Nation to preserve ancestral and heirloom seeds.

The report supports developing ways to provide daily access to fresh foods, she said. Jim-Martin said with only 13 grocery stores located on the Navajo Nation, which is about the size of West Virginia, residents can be forced to travel up to an hour to purchase healthy foods.

That lack of access makes the move to attract more grocery stores greater, she said.

Navajo Nation Council Delegate Amber Kanazbah Crotty, who represents the Tooh Haltsooí Chapter, said healthy food should be accessible to everyone on a daily basis.

In a separate report, state Rep. Debbie Rodella, D-Española, talked about sentencing disparities for Native Americans convicted of crimes in state and federal courts. Rodella said after the issue was called to her attention, she started examining how courts handle sentencing.

N.M. Rep. James Madalena, D-Jemez Pueblo, reviews a handout about the difference between sentences issued by state and federal courts during an Indian Affairs Committee meeting on Tuesday at the Tooh Haltsooí Chapter house in Sheep Springs.

"I think we need to move forward as a state to try to look at disparities between sentencing at the federal level and how it impacts, not only Native Americans, but also people of color," she said.

Rodella added that when a person is convicted of a crime in federal court, those sentences often are longer than sentences imposed by state courts.

"I think there is room for improvement," Rodella said.

Peter Kovnat, staff attorney with the Legislative Council Service, said in most cases, sentences for Native Americans are based on jurisdiction and on the sentencing structure for state and federal courts. In terms of jurisdiction, it can be complicated because it can depend on where a crime occurs, Kovnat said.

As part of an effort to further examine the issue, Rodella has sought support from the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators and the National Caucus of Native American State Legislators.

Both entities have adopted resolutions to review sentencing disparities, she said.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636.