Utah Food Bank building 3 new locations to fight food inaccessibility on Navajo Reservation

Nov 23, 2023, 10:18 PM | Updated: 11:35 pm

ANETH, San Juan County — For many, their dinner table may not look as full because there’s a limited amount of grocery stores in their area and food can be hard to come by.

There’s a collaboration with the Utah Food Bank to change this.

For years, The Aneth Chapter in southeastern Utah has teamed up with the Utah Food Bank to hand out food, once a month, to those in need. TJ Redhouse has volunteered for more than five years, handing out boxes of food to a continuous line of cars for two hours.

“At first, we needed food. We were the ones in the cars,” Redhouse said.

Volunteers load cereal and other supplies into line of cars for two hours during monthly Utah Food Bank food drive. (Erin Cox, KSL TV)

Johnston Blackhorse from the Navajo Nation comes every month to get food for his mother, who is wheelchair bound.

“It’s very beneficial cause it helps those of us who can’t do a lot of traveling,” Blackhorse said.

Construction surrounds what will be the front door for the Utah Food Bank’s Blanding warehouse. (Erin Cox, KSL TV)

There are only 13 grocery stores on the Navajo Reservation, so for Johnston and others, the distribution drive is sometimes their only food source for the month.

“Doing this once a month we have limited options of canned foods,” Johnston said. “Meat is somewhat very scarce. We do have some meat options at the gas station or the dollar store.”

The food drive helps 80-90 families each month, but the Utah Food Bank is working on three new locations that can help provide supplies daily.

Volunteers portion bags of fresh peaches for families at The Aneth Chapter monthly Utah Food Bank food drive. (Erin Cox, KSL TV)

An hour away from The Aneth Chapter, workers build the Utah Food Bank’s new warehouse in Blanding.

“This was something that needed to be done years ago,” said Ginette Bott, CEO of the Utah Food Bank.

The Navajo Trust Fund approached Bott before 2020, asking for help with food accessibility on the reservation.

Construction is underway on a new Blanding warehouse for the Utah Food Bank. (Erin Cox, KSL TV)

“Here’s your prime food desert,” Bott said. “There isn’t an easy, large grocery store or box store to get to.”

The Utah Food Bank is building two pantries: one in Montezuma Creek and another in Monument Valley. The new Blanding warehouse will supply the pantries.

Road in desert valley with rock formations in the distance

Monument Valley, one of the locations for the new Utah Food Bank pantry. (Erin Cox, KSL TV)

“Having the food there Monday through Friday, versus trying to just pick one day of the month is going to be so much easier for families,” said Bott.

The new locations provide daily supplies but it also increases accessibility to different types of food.

Inside a warehouse built with metal beams to hold up a metal roof

Inside the new Blanding warehouse which will supply two other pantries near on the Navajo Nation. (Erin Cox, KSL TV)

One of the greatest struggles for those on the reservation relying on food drives is the inability to control what food is in their diet – they get whatever is handed to them.

Anna Tom grew up on the reservation near Montezuma creek. She remembers busing to school in Blanding at five in the morning with no packed breakfast, lunch or dinner because all they had at home was “survival food.”

“Mutton stew, fry bread or tortillas,” Tom said. “Those are our everyday foods.”

Fresh fruit and vegetables were a treat, but hard to find. Tom remembers driving two to three hours away to Cortez or Farmington, and if there weren’t supplies there, they would drive the few hours to Moab.

A look at what will be the front reception area for the new Blanding warehouse. (Erin Cox, KSL TV)

The distance, price and no refrigerator at home made it so Anna grew up eating dried food. When canned foods were introduced, the amount of sugar preservatives brought health challenges. One in three within the Navajo Nation are diabetic or pre-diabetic.

“We were raised with dry stuff,” Tom said. “We didn’t have diabetes.”

Tom said her doctor recommended going back to eating dry foods, a diet she and others hope the Utah Food Bank will have the stock for in their new locations.

The Blanding distribution site will be up and running by late December. The other two locations will open in January.

Inside the Utah Food Bank’s new Blanding distribution warehouse still under construction. (Erin Cox, KSL TV)

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Utah Food Bank building 3 new locations to fight food inaccessibility on Navajo Reservation