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BYU Researchers Map Driving Times to Food Sources in the Navajo Nation

Road going toward mountains at sunset

Research from BYU students and professors about food availability shows driving times to food sources for Navajo Nation residents.

The Navajo Nation has the highest rate of food insecurity in the United States. Natalie Bennion’s research offers insights into understanding the causes behind the food insecurity.

Bennion, who is now a graduate of BYU’s Master of Public Health program, worked with Shelby Benally, who is from the Navajo Nation, and Drs. Chantel Sloan-Aagard, Lori Spruance, and Alisha Redelfs on the project.

The research team gathered data on the number of food sources (grocery stores, restaurants, and convenience stores) within the Navajo Nation and the border towns around it and the driving times for residents to get to the food sources.

With that data, the research team made geospatial maps to represent their findings. They found that the average one-way driving time to food sources for Navajo Nation residents was 55-65 minutes. The maximum driving time was 2.5 hours. The costs of travel time and unhealthy food contribute in large part to the food insecurity present within the Navajo Nation and create a cycle of insecurity that is not easy to change. That difficulty was also compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced many food sources to close temporarily.

As the research progressed, Bennion realized just how complex solving problems in public health is and how important relationships are in the process.

She said, “Everything really isn’t black and white. This study opened my eyes to the fact that there isn’t a simple solution to the problem. My takeaway from the project was the importance of working with the community. If you want to make a difference, it’s in the collaborations.”

Bennion learned from experience about the importance of collaborations within her research team, which included members with a broad array of specialized skills and research interests.

Bennion said, “I learned how to be confident in my own skills and in my thought processes. It was a highlight of collaboration and communication that was an add-on bonus that I don’t feel like you typically get in class.” Working with the professors, Bennion learned to lead a team and learned that she really enjoys research and solving problems.

Bennion has continued with her interest in solving problems and is now passing on the skills she has learned at BYU to the next generation of public health professionals at her job teaching public health classes at UVU.

Map of Natalie Bennion's research
Photo by Natalie Bennion
Natalie Bennion and Dr. Chantel Sloan
Photo by Natalie Bennion