UNM Rainforest Innovations

Zachariah Ben was featured in an article by the Guardian on his traditional farming methods and baby food company Bidii Baby Foods. Zachariah serves as a Tribal Liaison for UNM Rainforest Innovations’ New Mexico Tribal Entrepreneurship Enhancement Program. See Cecilia Nowell’s July 15 article, “The Navajo farmer taking a traditional approach to making baby food,” on the Guardian website reposted below and found on their website here

The Navajo farmer taking a traditional approach to making baby food

Cecilia Nowell

July 15, 2023

There’s a paleontological site in the center of Zachariah and Mary Ben’s family farm plot. Or, at least there is if you’re their two-year-old son, Yabiitoh. Neon-colored pterodactyl and stegosaurus toys lay strewn about between freshly sprouted Hopi red dye amaranth and Navajo white corn. As the Bens plunge corn jabbers – a hand-held farming tool – loaded with Oaxacan green corn seeds into the New Mexico soil, Yabiitoh ditches the dinosaurs and races across the farm lot.

Just a few miles north of Shiprock, New Mexico, on land long stewarded by the Navajo (or Diné) people in the fertile valley of the San Juan River, Zach and Mary tend the land where they grow produce for their baby food company, Bidii Baby Foods.

After their son’s birth in 2021, the Bens were struck by the absence of fresh, local and traditional baby foods available near the Navajo Nation, where canned goods are prevalent and most of the produce in grocery stores is overpriced but bruised, if it’s available at all.

As a sixth-generation Navajo farmer, Zach had experience with permaculture and traditional farming techniques. And as a first-generation Hungarian American with a background in public health, Mary was equally invested in finding an alternative to the canned baby foods in distant grocery stores. So the two started a line of Navajo white corn-based dehydrated baby cereals grown on Zach’s grandmother’s farm plot. Since then, Bidii Baby Foods has fed 6,000 children nationwide, and is on track to feed 10,000 more with a grant from Save the Children in 2023.

“As a new father, I felt like, ‘How can I not relive those past traumas of not having healthy food?’” said Zach, who recalls his family stocking up on canned and processed foods because electricity – and therefore refrigeration – was irregular on the reservation and fresh produce expensive and hard to come by. Today, there are only 13 grocery stores on the 27,000 sq-mile Navajo Nation, and 30% of families still do not have access to electricity. “I didn’t want my child to grow up only having a certain type of food because that’s all we were able to afford.”

Soon after Mary delivered Yabiitoh – whose name means “water of the sky” – in a hogan (a traditional dwelling) in March 2021, the couple started sowing their family’s farm plot outside of Shiprock, taking turns carrying their son in a cradleboard strapped to their backs. By the time they were ready to start feeding Yabiitoh solid foods, they had harvested the season’s crop. For their son’s first solid meal, the Bens steamed Navajo white corn in an underground pit – a process that Zach likens to a modern-day pressure cooker – for 12 hours before dehydrating the corn on drying racks for a week. To make it baby-friendly, “we milled that down and, my wife was breastfeeding at the time, so she added expressed breastmilk to the cereal.

“That labor of love, all of that ancestral knowledge, all of that connection, and synchronizing ourselves with the elements, ritualized in that process – to have your son taste that and consume that energy was something – that type of reaction is what we wanted for the rest of our people,” said Zach.

Ben was feeling a gratifying sense of pride in choosing to feed his son his ancestral foods rather than the processed foods typically available in the area’s limited grocery stores. But when they went in for Yabiitoh’s six-month checkup at the Indian Health Services facility, their pediatrician expressed concerns that Yabiitoh wouldn’t get enough nutrients from breastmilk, and that produce grown near Shiprock – where the largest spill of radioactive material in the United States happened in 1979 – could be dangerous to consume. Zach tried explaining that they had their soil and water tested regularly, but the doctor still sent them home with formula and canned baby food.

That experience only heightened the Bens’ desire to feed ancestral foods to their son and make those options available to other Native children. The couple wrote a business plan and founded Bidii Baby Foods – which takes its name from the Navajo word for “greedy”, which Zach said has come to mean “always wanting more” or “somebody who’s always snacking”. To support Bidii Baby Foods and the work they hoped the company could do, the Bens also launched a non-profit called the Ben Initiative, standing for Birth, Education and Nutrition.

Six months later, just as Yabiitoh was turning one, that same Indian Health Services facility purchased 300 packets of Bidii Baby’s Navajo white corn cereal to distribute to families. The dehydrated cereals – now available with squash and amaranth – are prepared much like oatmeal: added to boiling water and then cooled to room temperature. Today, Zach said, Bidii Baby Foods is available at IHS facilities across New Mexico, Utah and Arizona.

The concept of baby food as its own category of food didn’t exist in the United States before the early 20th century, said Amy Bentley, a professor of food studies at New York University and author of Inventing Baby Food: Taste, Health, and the Industrialization of the American Diet.

This is when “you have the rise of industrialized food products”, said Bentley. At the same time that scientists were identifying vitamins and understanding the importance of fruits and vegetables, the canning process made those same foods shelf stable. And as medical specialities began to emerge, pediatricians, obstetricians and others began issuing recommendations for infant care.

The way baby food, like all other canned food, was produced required the addition of salt, sugar, preservatives, flavorings, additives and emulsifiers. But it was well marketed: “It’s scientifically produced, it’s sterilely packed and it’s safer and more nutritious than you could provide for your babies at home,” said Bentley. “It becomes a symbol of American abundance and power.”

Historically, the Navajo people farmed corn, beans and squash on their ancestral lands in the modern-day Four Corners region. But when they were forcibly relocated to Fort Sumner in 1864, many only had access to the flour, sugar, salt and lard given to them by the US military. The Navajo people were eventually allowed to return to much of their ancestral land, but that land was now governed by a complex system of laws that determined who could farm and raise livestock. Many families instead took jobs in the new uranium mining industry and began purchasing their groceries.

Even though Zach grew up farming corn, beans, and squash, he said he always thought of those foods as cash crops to sell or ceremonial foods for special times of the year – not food he could eat in his everyday life.

That’s in part why it was important to him to create a dried product that most families could actually use – while also celebrating ancestral foods that might prevent children from developing adverse health outcomes like diabetes later in life. And starting with baby food felt like a way to encode those traditional flavors early in life.

“Early introduction of baby food, it’s not for nutrition. It’s for palate development,” said Bentley. However, “The way that baby food manufacturers made baby food was what I call very well acclimated to an industrial palate – so smooth texture, on the bland side, not spicy, not pungent, with a sweet profile.”

Since the 1970s, some smaller baby food manufacturers and parents have tried to break out of that norm, but it’s still what many children are taught to expect from food. “This kind of baby food maker is fantastic to see because it’s merging this idea of different kinds of flavors and tastes for baby with Indigenous owning of traditional foods and first foods,” said Bentley.

This July, Mary hopes to give birth to the couple’s second child on the Bidii Baby farm plot. On the far edge of a field filled with Oaxacan green corn and Hopi casaba melon, the family has set up a temporary shelter where their midwife will attend the birth. The couple’s vision of food justice starts prenatally – with mom eating foods that keep her blood pressure low and otherwise healthy enough for a home birth.

They have begun work on a greenhouse of herbs with maternal health uses – like managing postpartum bleeding, helping with breastfeeding and soothing the pelvis after delivery – that local herbalists can access. It’s just another way Bidii Baby imagines to “use food as medicine”, Mary said.

Bidii Baby Farms has also invited two young farmers to be farmers-in-residence this season, growing their own plots of crops. Youth outreach, not only to their own son, is how Zach imagines Navajo farmers will secure their agricultural future.

Raising Yabiitoh and their future children on Bidii Baby Farms – where they can dig up dinosaurs and eventually plant seeds of their own – is central to that vision.

“I want him to inherit the knowledge of having that relationship to the land, of having to nurture and steward the land,” said Zach. “When you work the land and you take care of it, it’ll take care of you.”

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