As a Navajo social worker with a passion for public health and nutrition, Cherilyn Yazzie’s goal was to advocate for the health of her community by teaching them how to eat. But she soon realized that something “didn’t click”.
“It was also the disconnect,” she said. “I try to teach them, ‘Be healthy, eat this kind of food.’ But on the other hand, in their systems, in their environment, they don’t have that access.
“I’m the one doing this wrong,” she thought. She knew she had to find a way to get this food to families in her community, but the odds seemed overwhelming. Growing the food itself became the goal.
But Yazzie didn’t have access to enough water, electricity, and she barely had an acre of land to work on, so the idea of building a farm on the scale she aspired to seemed too remote.
That didn’t stop her.
Instead, she and her husband, Mike Hester, built the infrastructure they lacked and started a business in Yazzie’s hometown of Dilkon, Arizona in 2018.
Four years later, Yazzie’s business, Coffee Pot Farms, is now a 36-acre operation growing and selling fresh produce including lettuce, bok choy, cruciferous vegetables, tomatoes, peppers, onions , spinach and beets to families in the Navajo Nation and Arizona. .
“What we want to do is be able to offer something that’s going to be local, that’s going to come from the land here,” she said. “Build this community here and really learn how to take care of each other.”
Yazzie said her goal is to bridge present and future generations by building a healthy community that can focus on life and learn as much as possible to pass on to its descendants.
“We want to be able to have healthy people so that we can carry on our traditions, our stories, our songs, our prayers,” she said.
Addressing food insecurity during COVID-19
And supporting that connection took on more meaning when the COVID-19 pandemic first hit, wreaking havoc on grocery store shelves across the country. Yazzie’s work brought relief to Navajo families who came to her to find food for their households.
“It affected us much more because many residents of the reservations travel to nearby border towns to buy our groceries and supplies, but when the supply chain was interrupted, we had difficulty finding staple foods,” said Cara Dukepoo, a Navajo mom of four who became a regular Yazzie’s customer in early 2020.
Dukepoo found Yazzie’s business one afternoon through a Facebook ad, she said, and she didn’t hesitate to sign up.
“It made me feel more comfortable as a mother knowing that I could buy fresh, local and organic products for my children,” she said.
Thanks to Yazzie, Dukepoo was able to have a guaranteed supply of eggs for his family, even during the most difficult times of the pandemic.
“What it showed us was that people were actually looking and asking if we had food boxes,” Yazzie said. “So that helped us think about what would be most useful as we move forward and that’s one of the areas we’ve really worked on.”
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Later that year, Yazzie began making food box subscriptions and bi-weekly vegetable box pickups available to her community at different locations.
“We always knew we were going to have enough veggies for two weeks, we also knew the veggies wouldn’t spoil, so we were pretty confident it would be fine,” Dukepoo said.
Yazzie is committed to helping families in her community when they need it most, she said, even when the pandemic has affected her on a personal level.
She said losing her father to COVID-19 in 2021 was the toughest challenge she has faced since starting her business.
“It was tough. I still cry every day. I’m still emotional,” Yazzie said. “But I know he’s proud of what we’ve done.”
Although she said some days she struggled to find motivation, this moment helped her find more meaning in supporting the health of her community.
Inspire a community
“It was personally the first time I’ve seen a managed commercial farm on the reserve, because you usually only see home gardens or traditional fields,” Dukepoo said. “To see something on his scale, on a very professional level, was surreal.”
Dukepoo said Yazzie’s work inspired her and her family to expand their own garden as they realized it was possible to grow a lot more things than they previously thought.
And Dukepoo isn’t the only one. Yazzie said that since she started using social media to tell her story and share more information about her business, members of her community have reached out to her to let her know how they feel represented. and inspired by his work.
“It’s part of showing people that it’s possible, even through many obstacles,” she said. “We can understand if we have this purpose and if we have this reason why we want to do something.”
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His efforts to continue helping his community during the pandemic landed him a central role in a GoDaddy film titled Big Water Summer: a story of creationwhich will be presented at the SXSW Film Festival taking place in March in Austin, Texas.
The film follows Cherilyn as she tries to grow her crops and shows her resilience as she faces unprecedented challenges, she said.
“She’s telling the world that she sees a problem and she’s ready to tackle it,” Dukepoo said. “Even if it is something as simple as food, but even then food is not simple – food is necessary.”
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