By Jennifer Krisch
Emma Ray has made up her mind -- she plans to return to her roots to start a new life.
A Native American of Navajo descent, Ray is studying to become a dietitian with the intent of relocating to a reservation in Greasewood, Ariz., after graduate school. She has spent the last three years at Ohio University preparing and is well on her way.
Ray, who will graduate on Saturday, is a McNair Scholar and a 2008 winner of the American Dietetic Association's Undergraduate Research Award for her research conducted on the Arizona reservation. The McNair Scholar Program, named after Ronald McNair, the second African-American to fly in space, is designed for first-generation college students or underrepresented minority students, and offers paid undergraduate research opportunities. McNair, known for his laser physics work, was killed in the 1986 explosion of the space shuttle Challenger.
Working with adviser David Holben, director of Ohio University's dietetics and nutrition with science programs, Ray wanted to focus her work on the nutrition -- or lack thereof -- on the Navajo reservation.
Holben is considered an expert on "food insecurity" -- a term used to describe households that lack access to food or experience hunger. According to Ray, it is a circumstance that permeates reservation life.
Ray's mother is one of 10 siblings and the only family member to leave the reservation. Annual family visits aided Ray in determining what field of study she wanted to pursue.
"Even within my own family there is not enough healthy nutrition," she said. "There are not enough fruits and vegetables. They eat a lot of potatoes, meat and bread."
But Ray wanted to know if this was by choice or by necessity. So the Freeport, Ohio, native developed a survey for women with school-age children living on the reservation to gauge the level of nutrition their families were getting. In addition to what foods were purchased, Ray also asked where the women obtained food for their family -- a grocery store, food bank or a government-sponsored food distribution service. Did the women have enough money to purchase food regularly? Do they skip meals in order to stretch their money further?
The results, while somewhat disheartening, were no real surprise to Ray: The general poverty of the reservation affects every aspect of residents' lives, including the foods they can obtain.
"There are not many jobs on the reservation, and transportation is an issue. The nearest grocery story is almost two hours' drive," she said. "One of my aunts just got indoor plumbing this year, and another one of my aunts doesn't have electricity or plumbing."
The study of food insecurity shows that when money is scarce, food choices change. Healthy fruits and vegetables are often replaced by less costly processed items -- often those containing more fat, starch and sugar, leading to a high risk for diabetes.
Of the 42 women who participated in Ray's study, only eight were found to live in a totally food secure household. The remaining fell into marginally, low and very low food secure categories, the elderly being the most affected by the very low security status. All the school-age children qualified for the free lunch program at the reservation elementary schools, and nearly all had experience with diabetes -- personally or through an immediate family member who was suffering from the disease.
"They just really aren't eating healthy," Ray said. "And the worst part is, surprisingly, most thought they were eating a healthy diet."
While Ray decided a long time ago that she would like to live and work on the Navajo reservation, her research has made her even more determined to follow those goals.
"My work has reaffirmed for me that I want to be a dietitian and work specifically with Native Americans," she said. "They need more education about the foods they eat and the nutrition they are getting, and I want to help teach them. To move to Arizona and live on the reservation -- that would be amazing."
Ray will be pursuing her master's degree at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, starting in July. The program offers a dual master's degree and internship simultaneously, a rare and time-consuming combination. But for a young woman who carried 25 credit hours this quarter, Ray welcomes the challenge.
"I'm so excited to start the dietetic internship," she said. "I'm going to miss OU, but I am ready to take the next step, to learn more and start working."