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As Coronavirus Pandemic Lets Up On Navajo, Food Assistance Needs Remain

Two women hold cucumbers
Kate Groetzinger/ KUER News
Sahar Khadjenoury, who helped start the food assistance program, and Katarina Benally, a nurse at the Utah Navajo Health System, count produce for a food distribution event in Montezuma Creek.

The Navajo Nation has reported fewer than 100 new cases of COVID-19 each day for over a month, a sign that the pandemic may be letting up there. But life on the reservation has not begun to return to normal as quickly as in surrounding states. 

Many Utah Navajo residents are still out of work or are afraid to get their groceries in border towns in Utah, Colorado and New Mexico — where cases are rising — so the need for food assistance is great. The Utah Navajo Health System, which has been providing food for people since the pandemic began, is answering the call with ongoing food distribution events in Monument Valley and Montezuma Creek. 

Sahar Khadjenoury, who works for the Utah Navajo Health System, has helped lead the food distribution effort, along with Pete Sands, since it began in the spring. They run drive-through events and give out 150 to 400 bags of food each week. 

“I don’t see it declining at all,” Khadjenoury said. “As more people are finding themselves concerned with unemployment, and these people no longer have gas money to go to the stores in these border towns that are an hour away, food becomes tricky.”

The food donations have been a lifeline for Renita Jones, who lost her job as a housekeeper because of the pandemic. She supports her husband, who is disabled, as well as their two teenage sons. She said they pick up food at the Montezuma Creek clinic each week. 

“For now, it’s just here,” Jones said. “I have a sister who helps me out if I really, really need it or I have a shortage.”

The bags of food are meant to feed a family of four for a week. And Jones said she’s been able to make it work so far, but they are eating less than they did before the pandemic. 

“I try to make enough for us to eat and not waste it,” she said. “Like the vegetables, I cut it up and freeze it and save it for another day.”

a woman places a large squash in a truck bed and a line of trucks visible in background.
Credit Kate Groetzinger / KUER
Sahar Khadjenoury loads a squash into Renita Jones' truck bed. Over 60 vehicles lined up for the event on Thursday.

The program receives a weekly stipend from the Utah Navajo Health System. But it relies on donations — like two big boxes of squash, cucumbers and zucchinis the Salt Lake Air Protectors sent down this week — to feed everyone. 

Sands, who helped start the program, said outside donations purchase about half of the food distributed each week. But they’re not receiving as much financial support as they did at the beginning of the pandemic. 

“It’s dwindled,” he said. “I think people have been hammered with COVID every day, and for a minute there were like 30 relief programs saying they were gonna help the Navajo Nation.”

Now, Sands said, Utah Navajo Health System is the main program serving families in Utah. And he doesn’t see the need going away any time soon. 

“I’m trying to conserve as much as I can,” he said. “Because we don’t know how long this will go and we don’t have millions like other relief programs.”

At the moment, their biggest need is a freezer, according to Khadjenoury. 

“It sounds funny, [that] that’s on our wishlist,” she said. “But, like, how do you distribute 21 pallets of frozen goods in one day if you don’t have refrigeration?”

You unload all of the food and then immediately load it back into waiting cars on the same day, Khadjenoury added, sometimes in 100 degree heat. 

Despite the challenges, Khadjenoury and Sands said they plan to continue the program into the fall, and Utah Navajo Health System CEO Michael Jensen said he will support the program for as long as it’s needed. 

Kate Groetzinger is a Report for America corps member who reports from KUER's Southeast Bureau in San Juan County. Follow Kate on Twitter @kgroetzi

Kate joined KUER from Austin, Texas. She has a master's degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin’s Moody School of Communication. She has been an intern, fellow and reporter at Texas Monthly, the Texas Observer, Quartz, the Texas Standard and Voces, an oral history project. Kate began her public radio career at Austin’s NPR station, KUT, as a part-time reporter. She served as a corps member of Report For America, a public service program that partners with local newsrooms to bring reporters to undercovered areas across the country.
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