With a five-year, $2.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), University of Wyoming and Wind River Indian Reservation partners will evaluate the health impacts of food gardens with 100 Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho families who would like to try home gardening.
The project, "Growing Resilience: an RCT on the health impact of gardens with Wind River Indian Reservation," is led by Christine M. Porter, assistant professor and Wyoming Excellence Chair in Community and Public Health in the Division of Kinesiology and Health at UW. Growing Resilience is a collaboration among UW, Northern Arapaho Tribal Health, Eastern Shoshone Tribal Health, Action Resources International and Blue Mountain Associates.
The Growing Resilience project leverages tribal assets of land, family, culture and community health organizations to develop and evaluate home food gardens as a family-based health promotion intervention to reduce disparities suffered by Native Americans in nearly every measure of health. In support of the project, a Wind River reservation community member wrote, "I think gardening was our history. We need to get it back."
Allison Sage, former director of Northern Arapaho Tribal Health, says that through gardening, "we can put health back in the hands of our people." The new director, Carlton Underwood, adds, "It means that we can teach our families how to provide for themselves when it comes to food security and nutrition, which will ultimately help them in leading a healthy lifestyle."
Cathy Keene, executive director of Eastern Shoshone Health Programs, agrees that "if we can get our members able to grow their own food and see some health benefits in reducing chronic disease, the Growing Resilience project is another resource in helping to reduce health disparities that exist on the Wind River reservation."
"Observational research has shown that home and community gardens improve health in many ways," Porter says. "Growing Resilience will be the first randomized control trial on health impacts of home gardens. If our study confirms that starting a food garden improves health, then supporting families who want to garden will become a culturally relevant and empowering health promotion strategy for tackling health disparities -- not to mention, a cost-effective one."
The Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribal health organizations each will recruit 50 families who are interested in gardening, but have not gardened in the recent past. Blue Mountain Associates will support the families in gardening. Half of families will begin gardening immediately, and half will start after two years to act as a control group for the gardening families.
In partnership with Wyoming Health Fairs, the Wyoming Survey and Analysis Center, and Felix Naschold in UW's Department of Economics and Finance, Porter will work with colleagues Alyssa Wechsler and Melvin Arthur to collect extensive health data from gardening and control participants twice a year for two years. The main outcome to be measured is body mass index, but the team also will monitor dozens of other health indicators such as hand strength, emotional well-being and hemoglobin A1C (a marker of blood sugar control important in diabetes).
The Growing Resilience project partners piloted the project in 2013-15 with support from UW's NIH-supported IDeA Networks for Biomedical Research Excellence (INBRE) program, with very promising results. Also, most of the partners have been collaborating on another project, called Food Dignity, since 2011.
Virginia Sutter of Blue Mountain Associates believes the groundwork and relationship building are key to the successes Growing Resilience has already seen.
"Historically, research has not always been kind to our people, as we are often misunderstood in our traditions," Sutter says. "This project is very effective because it builds off the previous collaboration to reduce food insecurity on the Wind River reservation and provide the resources needed to improve the health of our people."