Jonathan Nez, former president of the Navajo Nation, sees firsthand every day how a federally promoted diet is devastating Indian Country.
For thousands of years, the Three Sisters diet of corn, beans and squash was a staple for many Indigenous tribes in North America.
“But in (USDA) guidelines, they don’t even get a primary category,” Nez said.
He’s helping to lead an effort to not only promote more Indigenous foods nationally, but also remove foods he and others believe can be detrimental to health, such as dairy.
While grains and cereal still make the base of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s guidelines — meaning those foods should comprise most of Americans’ diets — dairy products enjoy the same importance as vegetables.
In the U.S., about 36% of people are lactose-intolerant, according to the National Institute of Health, with people of color being much more likely to have lactose malabsorption. Worldwide, about 68% of people are lactose-intolerant.
“To this day, government programs continue to harm the health of our people,” Nez said in a press release. “Milk, cheese and other dairy products were never part of our tradition. Dairying is a European custom, and today, the (federal) dietary guidelines still push us to consume milk.”
The USDA dietary guidelines have a major effect on the menus served at institutions across the country, such as public schools and hospitals.
Nez has been attempting to get the support of leaders from individual tribal nations in Wisconsin to join the call to remove dairy from the federal dietary guidelines.
With 43.5% of the state’s agriculture activity generated from the dairy industry, resulting in a $45.6 billion economic impact in Wisconsin, it’s unclear if tribal leaders here will openly join in Nez’s efforts.
But he has won the support of the National Congress of American Indians, an organization that includes representatives from tribal nations in Wisconsin.
The claim that dairy is detrimental to the Native diet is supported by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a public health nonprofit of 17,000 physicians that’s advocating for the removal of dairy from the 2025-2030 federal dietary guidelines.
“Like everyone else, Native Americans do not need to consume cow’s milk since there are so many other foods and beverages that can provide the calcium, protein, vitamins and minerals that are needed for growth and energy,” said Dr. Vanita Rahman of the Physicians Committee.
She said some research shows that dairy consumption can be linked to several negative health factors in many Native Americans and people of color, such as a trigger for asthma, diabetes and heart disease.
Some of the top killers for Indigenous people in Wisconsin are heart disease, which causes about 20% of deaths for American Indians, and diabetes, of which American Indians here are more than three times likely to die from than whites, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.
Dairy industry contends removal won’t improve Native Americans’ health
Amy Winters, executive director of the Wisconsin Dairy Products Association, explained that the federal dietary guidelines are recommendations based on scientific studies identifying where there are nutritional deficits in American society and the types of foods or beverages that are best-suited to provide those nutrients.
“Many school-aged children are not receiving enough essential nutrients for growth, development, healthy immune function and overall wellness,” she said. “Milk, cheese and yogurt in school meals — including lactose-free and reduced-lactose options — are one of the best opportunities for children to get the critical nutrients they need and should not be removed from the USDA’s dietary guidelines.”
She said the guidelines don’t dictate which specific foods should be consumed and don’t preclude healthy foods that people have in their family or ancestral history.
Winters said expanding programs, such as the Wisconsin Tribal Elder Food Box Program, and federal programs, such as the Healthy Food Financing Initiative and the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations, would be a better way to promote healthy diets for Indigenous peoples, rather than removing dairy from the federal guidelines, which could have a negative health effect for many families.
“We need more healthy food options and better access to healthy food for those facing food insecurity, not less,” Winters said. “Asking USDA to remove an American staple from food guidelines will not improve the health of Native Americans.
“Finding ways to support healthy food inclusion, reduce food insecurity and support additional food sovereignty initiatives are a much better use of resources to improve the health of all Americans.”
Winters pointed to some Indigenous restaurants that incorporate dairy into their menus as showing people’s interest and support of sharing food cultures.
“We all come from different backgrounds and food is a way to bring people together more than separate us,” she said.
What’s next for the efforts to influence USDA dietary guidelines
As a result of the efforts of Nez, the NCAI and other tribal groups, the federal Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee at its Jan. 19 meeting announced that it’ll conduct a food simulation study specific to Native Americans to make up for a lack of government data.
Dr. Valerie Blue Bird Jernigan, who’s a member of the federal committee and a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, presented the update that the government says will help ensure that Native Americans are better-represented in its work of determining dietary guidelines.
The federal government plans to release its 2025-2030 dietary guidelines by the end of 2025.
Frank Vaisvilas is a former Report for America corps member who covers Native American issues in Wisconsin based at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Contact him at [email protected] or 815-260-2262. Follow him on Twitter at @vaisvilas_frank.