In Towaoc, capital of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, there are about 347 households and no place within 15 miles to shop for fresh, healthy food.
That’s a significant barrier to improving health in a community where rates of obesity and diabetes are nearly three times higher than the rest of Colorado.
An ambitious plan to raise $12 million to build a grocery store could improve health and potentially resolve the persistent food desert in the southwest Colorado town. The plan also calls for creation of an adjacent workforce innovation center, programming such as televised cooking demonstrations, and training intended to direct people toward careers in food vending, marketing and e-commerce, said Bernadette Cuthair, planning director for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.
“The experience is going to be a lot different than what you would see in a typical Walmart or local grocery store,” Cuthair said.
But the improvements won’t come overnight. Building a 28,000-square-foot store is likely to take several years, and the tribe is counting on community support to help bolster what promises to be a lengthy fundraising effort.
Until then, tribal leaders are preparing to set up a makeshift market from shipping containers, reflecting both the urgency of the problem and the tribe’s willingness to try something new to solve it.
“We’re trying to think outside of the box to provide services here to our community,” Cuthair said.
The median household income in Towaoc is about $28,000, and 48% of the population is employed. About 30% of people have no health insurance and 6% of people there hold a bachelor’s degree or higher, according to U.S. Census Bureau data collected from 2016-20.
Ute Mountain Ute members also experience significant health disparities. The obesity rate for tribe members is 70%, compared with 23% for all Coloradans and 40% for all Americans. Twenty-five percent of tribe members have Type 2 diabetes, compared with 7.4% percent of Coloradans and 10% of Americans. Average life expectancy for tribe members is 55 years, compared with 80 years for Coloradans and 71 years for people across America, according to data compiled by THRIVE Partners, an organization working on the grocery store project and helping communities build vibrant economies.
“We’re sitting in a particularly challenged area,” Cuthair said. “Native Americans had been very healthy at some point. But because we’re living a very sedentary life, now we have to learn how to make adjustments.”
The plan in Towaoc comes amid efforts across the state to establish or improve fresh markets in areas where residents face long drives to buy healthy food.
The Rocky Mountain Health Foundation recently awarded the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe $30,000 to develop a fundraising campaign for the grocery store. The seed money is intended to help the tribe raise $12 million needed to build the new grocery store and workforce center. The Center for Rural Outreach and Public Services also contributed $6,000 in matching funds toward the project. “Colorado Health Foundation has been immensely helpful in leveraging funding for us through other means of grants as well,” Cuthair said.
The fundraising is expected to conclude by 2024, Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Chairman Manuel Heart said. “When complete, the facility will provide entrepreneurship opportunities, workforce training in the food industry, and new jobs for our members,” he said.
Cuthair began working on the project back in 2019 when she applied for funding to conduct a feasibility study and engaged the community in planning sessions.
The grocery store and workforce innovation center are planned for a site in a field west of Morning Star Lane, north of the Ute Mountain Casino, and directly off an exit from U.S. 491.
Currently, a Towaoc resident could drive about 20 minutes to Cortez to purchase groceries from a City Market, Safeway or a Walmart. But public transportation is unreliable and hard to access, making shopping a challenge for those without cars. Some people drive 60 miles to Farmington, New Mexico, which has the nearest Sam’s Club. Durango, which has several grocery stores and a Walmart, is about 80 miles away. In Towaoc, fast-food restaurants and convenience stores are the only place in town to buy food.
Once open, the Ute grocery store will stock fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean meats and other low-fat foods, sourced from local farmers and ranchers. There will be a delivery option for those without vehicles.
The workforce innovation center will offer training and entrepreneurship opportunities for people interested in working in the food industry. Some of those trained in the workforce center could find jobs at the grocery store. The tribe’s human resources department will help identify people interested in entrepreneurship or food service training.
Chefs working at the nearby Ute Mountain Casino Hotel will partner with the tribe to help train those interested in working at the grocery store, Cuthair said.
Heart said he also hopes to open an entertainment venue that will share a parking lot with the grocery store to increase socialization on the reservation.
The grocery store and workforce center will serve not only tribal members, although those people will be prioritized. The hub will also serve indigenous people from other tribes and people from the local community, such as spouses of tribal members.
Raising $12 million
Raising $12 million is a huge undertaking that will require tribal leaders to make the case for opening the grocery store and workforce center using pictures, drawings and text to tell the story about why the project is needed, said Julie Hinkson, senior resource and relationship partner at the Rocky Mountain Health Foundation.
Cuthair said she anticipates raising money from state and federal funders, as well as from nonprofits and the public.
The Ute Mountain Ute reservation spans about half a million acres along the Mancos River in Colorado and New Mexico. More than 800 tribal members live on the reservation.
According to most-recent data, there are about 1,200 members of the tribe scattered across the country, some living as close as Cortez, or White Mesa, Utah, about an hour away from Towaoc, (pronounced TOY-ahck), a Ute word meaning “thank you.” There are 51 programs operating at the tribe’s governmental headquarters, including for health care, education, housing, finance and public works. Tribal leaders are working to keep up with increased demand as the tribe continues growing, Cuthair said.
Years ago, there was a trading post in central Towaoc that housed a grocery store, a small cafe, a post office and a gas station, Chairman Heart said. When it closed, tribal members felt the impacts of that closure, especially during the pandemic, he said.
“I think it goes back to taking care of the mind, the spirit and the body,” Cuthair added. “And culturally, that’s really what we want. We want to have good health.”