"Buy Navajo, Buy Local" A vision to address the Navajo food desert by Myron Lizer
Updated: Jan 16, 2021
Honorable Myron Lizer is Vice President of the Navajo Nation. He is of the Comanche born for Tó'áhání (Near to Water), maternal grandfather's clan is Comanche, and paternal grandfather's clan is Tl'ááshchí'í (Red Bottom People). He is from Coalmine, New Mexico. He has been part of a family enterprise for 30 years that included hardware and food stores. In a strategy to mitigate the pandemic, he has developed a vision for building 6 new grocery stores to enable Navajo people to stay closer to home and address our food desert of only 11 grocery stores to serve a Nation of over 25,000 square miles.
Grocery stores are an essential need on the Navajo reservation, and the COVID-19 pandemic has heightened that awareness. We live in a food desert with only thirteen grocery stores for the whole reservation which spans about 17,544,500 acres. Some residents have to drive two hours or more just to buy food at the grocery store, most of the time traveling off the reservation to a nearby border town. Those border towns take money away from the Navajo Nation. According to research conducted by C.B. Richard Ellis, only 28.62% of money earned was spent inside the reservation. That means for every dollar earned, about 71% leaves the reservation. To combat this problem of leakage of dollars on the reservation, we need to think outside the box to create expanded shopping options such as entertainment, restaurants, and grocery stores through new types of partnerships and investment. Our communities, tribal enterprises and entrepreneurs are poised to create partnerships with outside investors and partners while ensuring that Navajo people truly benefit from the developments. Chapters also have the local governance authority to drive development and can offer creative finance viat their leasing, revenue generation, and bonding authorities. Furthermore, these ventures can provide jobs and revenue from the profits generated by a local shopping center.
Recently, the Tribe Awaken team had the honor of interviewing one of our tribal leaders, the Navajo Nation Vice President Myron Lizer, about his vision for adding six new grocery stores on the Navajo Reservation. He has been a part of a family business for over thirty years and he has honed some great business acumen. Before he became Vice President, he was working on several projects to enhance hardware stores and lumber yards in the region. Mr. Lizer says, “To do business on the reservation, you can’t learn through a textbook in our fine institutions. You have to cut your teeth, take a major risk, and make mistakes. You have to be convinced that you can make something happen. That is the true entrepreneurial spirit.”
Mr. Lizer is in agreement that there needs to be additional grocery stores on the reservation to help our people during this pandemic. His vision is to bring “innate, organic, Navajo grown, Navajo emphasized foods to our people through hybrid grocery stores.” By hybrid, he means combining a well known distributor such as Bashas’ with local distributors. His vision includes constructing six grocery stores and placing them strategically throughout the Navajo Nation. One thing to keep in mind is that prices may be high because products have to be hauled in from long distances and take many hours to get to our location. By the time fresh food gets to our towns on the reservation, the quality is lower. To combat this, we could work out a partnership with local farmers and agriculturists to provide food for the grocery stores. Mr. Lizer would also like to bring in distribution centers for our local restaurants and food vendors so they do not have to travel far to get bulk food. Mr. Lizer gets excited about the potential of a local Navajo owned meat processing of Navajo lamb and beef. This may be surprising, but the Vice President used to be a meat market manager in Phoenix when he was younger, so he knows a lot about meat processing and would like to bring a meat processing plant to the reservation to help out local ranchers and sheepherders. He has worked in grocery stores for many years, so he has an keen understanding of how they operate.
Mr. Lizer understands the desires of the Navajo public for more local grown food and the need to address the health epidemic from obesity to keep up a strong immune system in the face of a virus pandemic. He also feels it very important to enable folks to stay close to home in the face of this pandemic. He loves the idea of reaching out to potential partners that have similar values including the 7th Day Adventist Church in Loma Linda, CA to assist in creating strategy. They are a recognized world "Blue Zone" which means they have a high proportion of community members that live over 100 years of age. They incorporate healthy diet into their daily life and have had to drive independent local food options. For reference to what they have they did in Loma Linda go to the link below:
Building six grocery stores requires coordination, partnership, and continual check-ins so that the possible challenges that always slow down an important initiative are addressed quickly. One initiative the Vice President is willing to take to make the grocery store vision a reality is networking with the leaders that can help make this project come to fruition. Mr. Lizer says, “Working closely with our 24 Navajo Nation Council Delegates gives an advantage not many have when presenting economic development. We would have to study the demographics of a community to see if the location would be profitable. We would also have to study the geographics to see where the concentration of our population is and find the best place for grocery stores to be constructed. We would have to coordinate with partners because it takes many to bring a project to life.” It is important to set deadlines and keep checking up on the partners to ensure everything is running smoothly and on time. If one part of the wheel is not working, then the whole operation comes to a standstill and nothing is accomplished. As a young entrepreneur, Mr. Lizer was taught to “write his business plan in pencil because you’re always going to be changing it.”
There are many aspects to consider as we undertake larger development in Chinle, Tuba City, and other prominent reservation communities. We have to keep in mind that our Navajo people are event-oriented. For instance, the whole family is rounded up and everyone dresses in nice clothes when we go to town. It is a huge event to leave home for a day to pay bills, eat at a restaurant, go to the park, go shopping, and maybe even watch a movie. When the fairs are in town, relatives from all over come together at grandma’s house to meet everyone and go to the carnival, walk around the vending places, and eat fair food like a hot turkey leg and curly fries. Therefore, we have to entice people to stay and shop locally. We have to do things out of the box and work with the chapters to create shopping centers. The Vice President says, “We need to be all encompassing and all incorporating because everybody has a valid thought and idea from the entrepreneurs, chamber of commerce to the chapters.” This way, community members, entrepreneurs, and the local government are involved in the decision to develop additional grocery stores in the Navajo Nation.
With any new venture, there will be roadblocks within the community and with the Navajo Nation government. We would have to get buy-ins at the local level and with the chapters. To do this, we would have to bring in the community and the chapters. We would also work with the Navajo Nation government to get the surveying and rights of way done. To overcome these roadblocks, according to Mr. Lizer, “We need to bring in top minds. We need to bring our Navajo professionals home and make a comfortable quality of life for them. For this to happen, economic development needs to be a priority.” We need to enhance infrastructure to bring in more jobs for our people and help our people come out of poverty.
Another area to overcome is the redtape and bureaucracy required to develop. Mr. Lizer points out that we would need to bring together key local, Navajo, state and Federal legislators to help us overcome the redtape
The Vice President looks to Israel for inspiration to make our desert bloom. Israel became a nation in 1948 and now they are exporting food at a great number. When there is a calamity or natural disaster in the world, Israel sends food to those hot zones hours after it happens. Mr. Lizer has a valid point when he states that “the Navajo Nation has the land and resources similar to Israel, so why not copy Israel to make our land bountiful? We want to learn from the best to make our Navajo communities prosperous.”
To drive a point home, Mr. Lizer makes a controversial statement that may not resonate with everyone. He says, “Our Navajo people love to eat their young.” This means, economically we do not provide a future for them. We’re not doing the right things right now to help our children. We’re not making the best decisions by not providing opportunities for growth. There is much we can do to help our children grow, starting with providing them with nutritious affordable food on the Navajo Reservation. Grocery stores that provide healthy, organic, and local food would help combat the health disparities our people are afflicted with. Six grocery stores also makes food available for many communities throughout the reservation, making sure no one has to travel a long distance for their basic necessities.