In Towaoc, capital of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, there are about 347 households and no place within 15 miles to buy fresh, healthy food.
It’s a significant barrier to improving health in a community where obesity and diabetes rates are nearly three times higher than in the rest of Colorado.
An ambitious plan to raise $12 million to build a grocery store could improve health and potentially solve the lingering food desert in the southwestern Colorado town. The plan also includes the creation of an adjacent Workforce Innovation Center, programs such as televised cooking demonstrations, and training to guide people into careers in food sales, marketing and e-commerce,” said Bernadette Cuthair, planning director for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe. .
“The experience is going to be very different from what you would see at a typical Walmart or local grocery store,” Cuthair said.
But improvements won’t come overnight. Building a 28,000 square foot store will likely take several years, and the tribe is counting on community support to help bolster what promises to be a long fundraising effort.
Until then, tribal leaders prepare to set up a makeshift market out of shipping containers, reflecting both the urgency of the problem and the tribe’s willingness to try something new to solve it.
“We try to think outside the box to provide services here to our community,” Cuthair said.
The median household income in Towaoc is around $28,000 and 48% of the population is employed. About 30% of people don’t have health insurance and 6% of people there have a bachelor’s degree or higher, according to United States Census Bureau data collected from 2016 to 20.
Ute Mountain Ute members also experience significant health disparities. The obesity rate for tribal members is 70%, compared to 23% for all Coloradans and 40% for all Americans. Twenty-five percent of the tribesmen have type 2 diabetes, compared to 7.4% of coloradans and 10% of Americans. The average life expectancy for tribal members is 55, compared to 80 for Coloradans and 71 for Americans, according to data compiled by THRIVE Partners, an organization working on the grocery project and helping communities. to build vibrant economies.
“We’re sitting in a particularly difficult area,” Cuthair said. “Native Americans had been very healthy at one time. But because we lead very sedentary lives, we now have to learn to make adjustments.
Towaoc’s plan is part of efforts across the state to establish or improve fresh produce markets in areas where residents must travel long distances to buy healthy food.
The Rocky Mountain Health Foundation recently awarded the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe $30,000 to develop a fundraising campaign for groceries. The seed capital is intended to help the tribe raise the $12 million needed to build the new grocery store and labor center. The Center for Rural Awareness and Public Services also donated $6,000 in matching funds for the project. “The Colorado Health Foundation has also been extremely helpful in raising funds for us through other grantmaking avenues,” Cuthair said.
Fundraising is expected to end by 2024, said Mountain Ute Tribe Chairman Manuel Heart. “Once completed, the facility will provide entrepreneurship opportunities, food industry workforce training and new jobs for our members,” he said.
Cuthair began working on the project in 2019 when she applied for funding to conduct a feasibility study and engaged the community in planning sessions.
The Grocery and Workforce Innovation Center is planned on a site in a field west of Morning Star Lane, north of Ute Mountain Casino and directly off US 491 .
Currently, a Towaoc resident can drive approximately 20 minutes to Cortez to purchase groceries at a city market, Safeway, or Walmart. But public transport is unreliable and difficult to access, making shopping difficult for those without a car. Some people drive 60 miles to Farmington, New Mexico, which has the nearest Sam’s Club. Durango, which has several grocery stores and a Walmart, is about 80 miles away. In Towaoc, fast food restaurants and convenience stores are the only places in town to buy food.
Once open, the Ute grocery store will offer fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean meats and other low-fat foods, sourced from local farmers and ranchers. There will be a delivery option for those without a vehicle.
The Workforce Innovation Center will provide training and entrepreneurial opportunities for those interested in working in the food industry. Some of the people trained at the labor center might find employment at the grocery store. The tribe’s human resources department will help identify those interested in training in entrepreneurship or catering.
Chefs working at the nearby Ute Mountain Casino Hotel will partner with the tribe to help train those interested in working at the grocery store, Cuthair said.
Heart said he also hopes to open an entertainment venue that will share parking with the grocery store to increase socializing on the reservation.
The grocery store and labor center will not only serve tribe members, although these people are given priority. The center will also serve indigenous people from other tribes and members of the local community, such as spouses of tribal members.
Raise $12 million
Raising $12 million is a huge undertaking that will have tribal leaders advocating for the opening of the grocery store and labor center using pictures, drawings and text to explain why the project is needed, said Julie Hinkson, Senior Resource and Relationship Partner. at the Rocky Mountain Health Foundation.
Cuthair said she plans to raise funds from state and federal funders, as well as nonprofits and the public.
The Ute Mountain Ute Reservation covers approximately half a million acres along the Mancos River in Colorado and New Mexico. Over 800 tribal members live on the reservation.
According to the most recent data, there are about 1,200 tribesmen scattered across the country, with some living as close as Cortez, or White Mesa, Utah, about an hour from Towaoc, (pronounced TOY-ahck), a Ute word meaning “thank you”. There are 51 ongoing programs at the tribal government headquarters, including health care, education, housing, finance, and public works. Tribal leaders are scrambling to meet the increased demand as the tribe continues to grow, Cuthair said.
Years ago, there was a trading post in central Towaoc that housed a grocery store, a small cafe, a post office and a gas station, President Heart said. When it closed, the tribesmen felt the effects of the closure, especially during the pandemic, he said.
“I think it comes down to taking care of the mind, spirit and body,” Cuthair added. “And culturally, that’s really what we want. We want to have good health.