CALS Controlled Environment Agriculture Center donates 900 pounds of produce to Navajo Nation

Friday, May 15, 2020
(From left) Samantha Heward, graduate student manager at the Controlled Environment Agriculture Center Teaching Greenhouse, Karen Francis-Begay, Stacy Tollefson, CEAC Teaching Greenhouse manager, Tilak Mahato, CEAC research associate, and undergraduate student Daniel Harmon collect donated produce for the Navajo Nation. (Photo by Murat Kacira/Biosystems Engineering)

Throughout the novel coronavirus pandemic, faculty within the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences have banded together to serve our local communities—from producing much-needed hand sanitizer for area healthcare workers to most recently donating 900 hundred pounds of fresh produce to Northern Arizona’s Navajo Nation. 

The produce – which included cucumbers, tomatoes, and more than a hundred heads of lettuce – was included in a food distribution event that helped more than 400 families in need.

“The donation itself was tremendous, directly filing a need on the Navajo Nation for people who have been really impacted by COVID-19,” said Karletta Chief, a Dine hydrologist in the Department of Environmental Science who helped coordinate the donation. “It was wonderful to see that UA was able to do that.”

“I want to sincerely thank my colleague Dr. Stacy Tollefson, who manages our teaching greenhouse at UA-CEAC with her students, and Tilak Mahato, Research Associate, who helps manage our leafy greens research greenhouse, for their efforts that helped made that donation possible,” said Murat Kacira, director of the Controlled Environment Agriculture Center and professor of Biosystems Engineering.

The effort took a great deal of coordination and urgent response, according to Chief. The Navajo Nation has been operating under daily curfews from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m., and 57-hour weekend curfews beginning Fridays at 8 p.m.  

With the rapidly evolving situation on the Navajo Nation, coordinating the produce drop-off required a lot of hands. Fortunately, the University of Arizona’s Vice President for Tribal Relations Karen Francis-Begay volunteered to make the seven-hour drive and deliver the much-needed produce for distribution to families.

“They were literally pulling the lettuce from the garden, that’s how fresh it was to get it loaded and get it up to the Navajo Nation,” Chief said.  

Unlike those who live in urban areas and can take advantage of curbside pickup and delivery options, those who live on the Navajo Nation can drive anywhere from 40 to 200 miles roundtrip to visit a grocery store.

“The Navajo Nation is a bit of a food desert,” Chief said, “the pandemic has amplified that situation.”

"Arizona’s Indigenous peoples’ Nations have been hit terribly hard by the coronavirus pandemic and I am incredibly  proud of Murat, Stacey, and Tilak and their team for reacting so quickly with much-needed fresh produce to the Navajo Nation," said Shane Burgess, UArizona vice president of agriculture, life and veterinary sciences and Cooperative Extension.

UA-CEAC has also been providing fresh produce to Iskashitaa Refuge Network to help support COVID-19 relief efforts for families in need. Planning is also underway to continue providing fresh produce support for local food banks and other communities.

Rosemary Brandt
Media Relations Manager, College of Agriculture & Life Sciences