Emily Piltch, MPH, is a PhD Candidate at the Friedman School, whose dissertation work focuses on the barriers and facilitators to increasing access to healthy food in the most remote areas of the Navajo Nation. The Navajo Nation is a semi-autonomous Native American territory located in the southwest US. It easily fits the USDA definition of a food desert, as a majority of the Navajo population experiences food insecurity, many Navajo people have little access to a grocery store, much of the population lives below the poverty line, and high rates of nutrition-related chronic disease persist.
Emily grew up in a small town of New Mexico that was isolated from high poverty Native communities. After completing her Master’s in Public Health, Emily worked on a childhood obesity prevention program and helped local leaders start a farmer’s market in a border town of the Navajo Nation. The group had a meeting with Navajo residents interested in farmer’s markets and it gave her insights that she had never before known about communities in the state in which she was raised. She learned that issues of food security are deeply embedded in social and cultural values and practices. Emily wanted to make sure that even as a student, her work could have impact and she believed the way to do this is through collaboration with local organizations. In addition to working towards her PhD in Nutrition Science and Policy, Emily volunteered for the Healthy Stores Initiative for the Community Outreach and Patient Empowerment (COPE) project on the Navajo Nation.
For her dissertation research, Emily seeks to understand both the history and current mechanisms that have shaped food access on the Navajo Nation and have led to the high rates of food insecurity and nutrition-related diseases. According to Emily, a large portion of people living in the Navajo Nation make one trip per month to a grocery store to do their primary shopping and it is unknown where these families buy perishable food in the intervening time. Emily wonders if residents rely on small retail food outlets closer to home for these purchases, despite these stores having minimal fresh, nutritious foods. Emily worked with a local non-profit organization to conduct interviews with owners of the small retail food outlets, as well as with shoppers. She is currently analyzing the data she collected.
Emily believes that access to affordable, nutritious foods is a basic human right and that communities, such as the Navajo Nation have been wronged by layers of hierarchy and government policies. Through her work she supports local residents that want to improve access to healthy, affordable foods. Emily sees access as including the following key components: physical proximity, affordability, and cultural and biological appropriateness.
Emily feels strongly that while outsiders can come into and attempt to collaborate with a community like the Navajo Nation, it is no substitute for being a local with “indigenous ways of knowing.” She believes that if the nutrition and scientific communities could do more to provide training to local community members, we would see more robust and sustainable impact in the areas of food justice.
While collecting data for her dissertation, Emily has remained in close contact with her advisor, Dr. Timothy Griffin, and Dr. Virginia Chomitz, who teaches NUTR 228 Community and Public Health Nutrition. Emily brings her work into the classroom, as guest lecturer in Dr. Chomitz’s class and brings and serves as a resource for students interested in the work being done with the Navajo Nation or who are looking for advice about forming partnerships with local organizations.