OpenIDEO is an open innovation platform. Join our global community to solve big challenges for social good. Sign Up / Login or Learn more

AdvancingTribal Health: Water Stewardship and Sugar Reduction

Our overarching vision is to promote health and self-reliance in communities that become stewards of their local waters and nutrition.

Photo of Paul Breslin
2 5

Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

Monell Chemical Senses Center

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Researcher Institution

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

Burrell College of Osteopathic Medicine (Main Partner, Richard Selinfreund and Justin McHorse); Monell Chemical Senses Center (Submitting institution, Paul Breslin, Nancy Rawson, Linda Flammer); Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey (Nutritional Sciences partner, Paul Breslin); Native Pathways for Advancing Tribal Health (NPATH) (NM partner program from BCOM); Commercial Beverage Manufacturing Partner of the Monell Center (partner and consultant for creating bottling plant); Water Demineralization Corporation (Main partner for creation of demineralization plant and generation of gypsum; Scale Ag (Main partner for agricultural remediation, Wes Richins).

Website of Legally Registered Entity

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 1-3 years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?


Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

United States of America

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

Pueblo Partners of New Mexico, USA, covers an area of approximately 79,000 km^2.

What country is your selected Place located in?

United States of America

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

The sovereign Pueblo Nations in New Mexico are closely connected to us largely through Burrell College of Osteopathic Medicine (BCOM) in New Mexico and its developed relationship through the Native Pathways for Advancing Tribal Health (NPATH) program. This relationship has been in development over the past four years because of the efforts of Richard Selinfreund and Justin McHorse of BCOM. The Pueblos of New Mexico are in a crisis of health due to reduced levels of physical activity, access to clean water for drinking and for agricultural irrigation. Additionally, a diet rich in calorically-dense, nutrient-poor but inexpensive beverages and foods have come to dominate the diet. This, along with a departure from a historically active agrarian lifestyle, has resulted in obesity and diabetes rates well beyond the national averages; one out of seven people in the Pueblo communities has clinical diabetes (Centers for Disease Control). Our team has been working with a Pueblo for years to help them become self-determinant stewards of their health by developing opportunities for empowerment, which can ultimately lead to increasing physical activity and reducing sugar intake. We are also working to increase traditional farming practices, a return to more agrarian based society, and an embrace of culturally relevant athletics, such as running. These activities will be presented to engage further support of the tribal leadership of the Pueblos and the Governor of New Mexico, who already have offered their support of our efforts.

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

The sovereign Pueblo Nations that live on tribal lands are largely comprised of descendants of the ancestral Puebloan Culture, who occupied the Rio Grande valley area and Mesa Verde region across New Mexico approximately 2000 years ago. Their descendants are represented in the 19 Pueblo Nations located in New Mexico and Ysleta del Sur Pueblo located in El Paso County, TX. They are an agrarian society that speaks several native languages including Keres, Tanoan (dialects: Tewa, Tiwa, and Towa), and Zuni, as well as English and Spanish. Crops largely consist of corns, beans and squash which assist each other in growth and nutrition. As a result of historical trauma, the Pueblo Peoples have had their traditional lifestyles altered in that they are less physically active than in past decades and have reduced access to clean water, largely due to the use of Rio Grande and aquifer waters for large cities and agriculture off the Pueblos. As a consequence, there is less farming on Pueblo lands and, therefore, less physical activity. With increased availability and access to convenience stores, gas stations and dollar outlets near tribal lands that sell processed foods and beverages, an appreciation for calorically-dense beverages has arisen and these are often used as the primary source of hydration. This, in turn, has been a contributor of obesity, reaching almost 40% of the population, and diabetes, now at record high levels of 14% of the population (one in seven people) according to the CDC. The Pueblo peoples realize the benefit of outside help to secure technologies that can help reverse these trends and to once again achieve self-determination over their good health and their water stewardship.

The Puebloan peoples seek to embrace their traditional culture, to heal the cultural trauma that has been part of their modern history in the United States, and to navigate the current culture which encompasses modern economic models, the need for high speed internet, transportation, paying jobs, and shopping in food stores that mostly offer low-nutrient/calorically-dense options.  Furthermore, the traditional culture is based on desert life in New Mexico. Hence, water is synonymous with life. The languages of the area take particular note of the patterns of weather, snow melt, and animal migrations to dictate different aspects of the agricultural season. As farming is on the decline due to lack of access to high quality water and poor soil health and native language use has declined due to modern American educational practices, the cultural traditions of Puebloan society have declined significantly.  And with this decline, the overall health of the people has followed. The desired embrace of traditional culture necessitates having sufficient quantities of clean water for drinking and irrigation and the responsible use of water. In our vision, we begin with creating clean water from brackish aquifers to generate new water for the eco-system and remediating soil with the water-desalination by-product gypsum.

Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

ENVIRONMENT:  Limited access to high quality water in large quantities, loss of water rights, compacted and salty soils that interfere with crop growth are current environmental challenges.

DIETS: Poor access to healthy foods; a food environment dominated by low cost, calorically dense, nutrient poor products; poor quality drinking water; excessive consumption of calorically-dense beverages; and decreased physical activity establish a challenging metabolic profile for the community.

ECONOMICS: Low levels of agriculture create few economic opportunities, and lack of jobs centered around sustainability are hindering success economically.

CULTURE: Loss of dignity, low self-esteem, and the loss of traditions are tied to the loss of water rights, unhealthy diets and lifestyles, and the cultural trauma associated with U.S. policies regarding Native Americans. Consequences of the above are poor economics, loss of indigenous language use, and decreased traditional agrarian lifestyle.

TECHNOLOGIES: Ways are needed to desalinate the brackish water that is available and improve water use; counter soil compaction which reduces farming productivity; provide alternatives to calorically dense (high fructose), nutrient poor dietary options and enhance career training and economic opportunities in the Pueblo. 

POLICY: Achieving “buy-in” from all of the tribal leaders and the Puebloan peoples in order to count all of the people as community partners in detailing the vision, as well as in executing the plan.

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

Our vision will utilize community values and their natural resources to solve their health problems. We will equip Pueblo communities with the resources to empower them to be self-determinants of cleaning their own waters, which consequently will remove a major limitation for farming. Gypsum, the salty-soil-mitigation by-product of the water treatment technologies, will support better agriculture and improved use of agricultural irrigation. Our sweetener system for reducing calorie intake from sugar and making tasty and satisfying fructose-free beverages will improve health. This sweetener system is needed because people will not turn away from full flavored sweetened beverages.

ENVIRONMENT: We will begin with desalination of brackish aquifers. This will allow high quality drinking water, water for irrigation, and water for producing beverages. As a byproduct of demineralizing the water, we will create gypsum that will both allow soil to be de-compacted or flocculated to allow water to enter the soil and, thereby, minimize water evaporation during irrigation and also remediate the high salt content of the soil which enables crops to thrive when grown.  

DIETS: We will provide clean drinking water, healthier beverages, and eventually fresh vegetables, corn, beans, squash and other farm goods in the form of easily-accessible local markets.  This in turn will necessitate more people being active to enable these systems to thrive.

ECONOMICS: We will create jobs and commerce opportunities by building a local water demineralization plant and a local bottling plant for making low calorie fructose-free beverages. Increased agriculture will create opportunities for food sales and farmers markets.

CULTURE: The creation of jobs and manufacturing, the return to traditional agrarian lifestyle, and the potential to improve stewardship of the land, the waters, and the health of the people will return a higher sense of dignity and self-esteem. A return to these cultural traditions of sustainable agriculture and stewardship will also encourage traditional language use.

TECHNOLOGY: We will introduce a staged water desalination plant that can clean up brackish aquifer waters. We will also introduce a bottling plant that can utilize our new low-calorie fructose-free sweetener technologies to produce great tasting and healthier beverages. We will also teach and enable soil remediation practices for agriculture that utilize gypsum.

POLICY: We have a relationship with the Governor of New Mexico and have forged a successful partnership with the leaders and tribal members of the Pueblo of Jemez. We will strive to gain the support and participation of tribal leaders from as many of the Pueblos in the Rio Grande Valley as we can. We will pursue their “buy-in” to this vision and their support so that all community members can be partners. We will be careful not to present a false sense of hope but will build trust with the Tribal Community, Pueblo by Pueblo.

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

Trust and mutual respect between our team and the Pueblo Communities has been the focus of Justin McHorse and Richard Selinfreund’s efforts over the past four years. Without these in place, we could not go forward with our vision. Importantly, the creation of new water from brackish aquifers and its use in agriculture, drinking water, and the bottling plant will greatly increase water use.  Critical to communal health is overcoming the threat to tribal communities of losing their water rights when they do not use their water. Water rights exist on a “use it or lose it basis”. The significantly enhanced use of their waters will help ensure their water rights and support a sustainable economy and eco-system. The flocculation of the soil, the improved quality of irrigation, and the remediation of salt in the soil all via use of gypsum will also improve the eco-system and support agricultural sustainability.

The increased agriculture, the creation of the desalination plant, and the water demineralization plant will improve the local economy and create jobs. The consumption of healthier foods and the increased activity will decrease obesity, diabetes, and fatty liver rates and increase life span. Attaining the traditional cultural practices of autonomy, agrarianism, and stewardship of the land, water and their health will represent a reclamation of Puebloan culture and healing of cultural trauma universally experienced. We believe this will pave the way for digging deeper into traditional culture and reclaiming language and traditional farming practices. The end result will not only be a healing of the land but of the people. Ultimately dignity and self-esteem will be raised in the tribal community. The totality of our vision is one in which there is a cycle of improving health, the eco-system, the culture, and their sustainability in an iterative loop of healing and improvement.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

The Pueblos’ lifestyles were once vibrant, self-reliant, and healthy. They were an agrarian culture that had abundant clean water. Today the water has largely disappeared due to its modern use by people all around the region and in part due to climate change. There is water still available from the Rio Grande, although much less, and there are large underground aquifers that can be tapped but contain unusable water due to toxic contaminants. Reduced agriculture has followed. There has, therefore, been less physical activity from farming and a preference for soda and calorically-dense beverages over water. Humans possess an innate love for sweet foods and beverages. Pragmatically, we must accept this and create novel technologies for allowing consumption of sweets that are much healthier. Unfortunately, the result of the present culture has been an epidemic of obesity, diabetes, and liver disease. We have created a partnership of academics, a medical school (Burrell College of Osteopathic Medicine [BCOM]), Pueblo communities, the Governor of New Mexico, a water treatment company, a smell and taste sensory research institute (The Monell Chemical Senses Center), an agricultural improvement company (Scale Ag), and a large company that manufactures beverages to both realize and enact this vision. We are doing this by embracing the communities’ inherent values and culture and their natural resources to create solutions in partnership with the community to solve the interconnected health, land, and water problems.

The vision is to take unusable waters from aquifers, to convert this water to clean water, to take the by-products of cleaning the water (gypsum is created during water demineralization) to improve soil conditions for improved agriculture, and to take the clean drinking water and create beverages that are sweet, tasty, all-natural, and satisfying with reduced calories and no fructose. Excessive fructose consumption is what is largely responsible for liver disease and contributes to diabetes. Humans on the whole crave sweet beverages and foods. By delivering beverages that have reduced calories, reduced sugar and no fructose, we will have a positive impact on health. A bottling plant that can manufacture these beverages will help the health of the community and the surrounding regions as it creates jobs, boosts the economy, and provides a sense of ownership. These communities once again will return to self-determined health, better nutrition, full scale agriculture, improved stewardship of the land, and self-reliant control of their own waters. In particular, this vision is embraced by Pueblo Communities, by their tribal leaders, and by the Governor of New Mexico. The funds provided by the Food System Vision Prize will facilitate the team in partnership with the community, to detail the vision, and by the year 2050 to realize the vision.

The Iterative Transformative Cycle: Community, Water, Beverage, Land.  

The Community. Richard Selinfreund and Justin McHorse from BCOM have been working for four years with Jemez Pueblo on community engagement, and are beginning to work with Acoma Pueblo. They have been focused on building trust and a working relationship with Pueblo Communities to help them achieve their objectives of improved health. Foremost in their conversations are the concerns over obesity, diabetes, and fatty liver disease. The efforts and plans are driven by the Community Leaders who wish to increase exercise and decrease consumption of calorically dense beverages and foods. The trust that has now been established is the foundation for the current vision we are presenting in this submission. This creates a sense of ownership by the Pueblo Communities for the vision. The development of this relationship is the start of the entire transformative cycle. With the established relationship we will move forward toward the other aspects of our collective vision to improve water stewardship, to return to traditional agrarian lifestyle, and to provide reduced calorie beverages for the community and beyond.

The Water. There is a Pueblo saying that ‘Water is Life’. Today the river water has been taken away by numerous groups outside of the Pueblo communities who utilize it for their own municipal and agricultural needs.  There are also underground aquifers that Pueblo communities tap into via wells, but these are brackish and contain metals, such as cadmium, arsenic, and uranium. These make poor waters for drinking and irrigation. The reduced use of water in general on Pueblos has consequently damaged their water rights because water rights are directly tied to water use.

 We are in conversation with a local water company who employ the world’s experts on water demineralization. The cleaning of the brackish aquifer represents multi-faceted opportunities for the community, and importantly is creating new usable water that can be put into the eco-system. With the new cleaned water there will be water for household use, drinkable tap water, water for agricultural irrigation, and water to create new reduced-calorie beverages. Not only will the eco-system benefit from the creation of new, clean, healthy water, but the greatly increased water use will provide stronger water rights for the Native communities.

The water demineralization system that we will be using isolates components of the brackish water in stages as pure chemical entities.  One major by-product of water demineralization is gypsum, which will be created during the water processing. Gypsum is an extremely important agricultural product for its utility in soil management. Thus, a by-product of cleaning the brackish aquifer water will enable renewal and transformation of the land for improved farming. Our team member with expertise in creating these plants will be directly involved with the creation of a local plant. Operations will require skilled labor and will create jobs for the community and job training for the employees.

The Beverage. The purified water will also be used in the creation of a novel, all natural, reduced-calorie, fructose-free beverage. The expertise to create a sweet, tasty, satisfying, and refreshing beverage that has reduced calories and no fructose comes from the Monell Center. Paul Breslin, faculty at Monell and Nutritional Sciences at Rutgers University, with his teammates has created a sweetener, color, and flavor system that achieves these desired features.  Paul Breslin and team members Nancy Rawson and Linda Flammer have expertise in taste, flavor, and nutrition. Why not simply let people drink clean water?  There is no question that water is a very healthy beverage, but people who are accustomed to drinking calorically-dense beverages will not simply give them up. People in general crave sweet foods and beverages, which is why the sodas were sought in the first place. Our new beverage will allow people to continue to feed their desire for sweet taste but in a manner that is much healthier. To produce this beverage we will also create a local bottling plant that has the approval of the Tribal Leaders. This will create several new manufacturing jobs in the community using their own water, and will also boost the economy as the beverage will be sold widely. To create this bottling plant, we have been in conversation with a longstanding partner of the Monell Center, a Fortune 100 Food and Beverage Company. In the end, we will use the desire for sweet taste as a lever for social change and better health.  

The Land. The land for farming in the Pueblo Communities is facing two problems at this time.  First, the soil is compacted from years of irrigation and use, making it difficult for crop roots to take hold and for irrigation water to penetrate.  Water that does not penetrate the soil will evaporate quickly in a desert environment. Second, the soil is salty from years of irrigation with brackish waters. Crops have great difficulty thriving and producing in salty soils. Amazingly, the brackish water contains minerals that we convert into gypsum during the water demineralization process. This gypsum will be used to solve both problems. First, gypsum effectively de-compacts the soil through the process of flocculation. This allows granules of soil to form around the gypsum, which opens channels or empty spaces around the granules; these allow crop roots to penetrate more easily and water to flow through these channels. Second, gypsum draws minerals to it to mitigate the salty soil problem and allow plants to thrive.  Hence, cleaning the brackish water allows beverages to be made from this water, creates clean irrigation water, and enables the creation of gypsum from the water to remediate the main soil problems of the region. All of the agricultural benefits will be overseen by our partner Wes Richins who is the owner of Scale Ag, an organization with many years of expertise in this exact process.  

Major Outcomes:

The Economy.

As our vision is realized there will be benefit in the form of an improved economy for the community. The bottling plant will bring profits to the community and together with the demineralization plant will create jobs. These industries will bring job training, technical expertise, transportation to and from work, and high-speed internet where currently there is almost none.

The People and Culture.

The Puebloan Communities will experience a materialization of their vision of self-determination, restoration of traditional agrarian lifestyle, improved stewardship of land and water, improved eco-system, improved water rights over their own waters, and improved health (reduced obesity, diabetes, and fatty liver disease) from labor, farming, exercise, and ingestion of reduced-calories and healthier farmed foods. Ultimately, these benefits will result in improved sense of dignity and self-esteem among members of the community as their vision is achieved.

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

  • Email
  • Website
  • Prize partners
View more

Team (4)

Paul's profile
Nancy's profile
Nancy Rawson

Role added on team:

"Nancy Rawson is Vice President of the Monell Chemical Senses Center, the worlds most prominent smell and taste research institute, and has been working with Paul Breslin for several years on ways to reduce sugar intake in society at large. Together they formed the Sugar Reduction Working Group, a collective of stakeholders from food and beverage manufacturers to communities and professional organizations."

Justin's profile
Justin McHorse

Role added on team:

"Justin McHorse is from the Taos Pueblo and is the VP. of Multicultural Inclusion at the Burrell College of Osteopathic Medicine (BCOM). He has been instrumental in building a bridge between the Medical School and the Pueblo Communities. Together with Richard Selinfreund, he has been working steadfastly with Pueblo Communities for four years to build a relationship of mutual trust and respect. They are working towards fulfilling the vision of improved health and a more traditional agrarian life."

Richard's profile
Richard Selinfreund

Role added on team:

"Dr. Selinfreund is faculty at the Burrell College of Osteopathic Medicine (BCOM). He has been instrumental in building a bridge between the Medical School and the Pueblo Communities. Together with Justin McHorse, he has been working steadfastly with Pueblo Communities for four years to build a relationship of mutual trust and respect. They are working towards fulfilling the vision of improved health and a more traditional agrarian life."

Attachments (1)

Pueblo Project Graphics V7.pdf

Slides to Describe the Food System and the Vision of the Transformative Cycle


Join the conversation:

Photo of Itika Gupta

Hi Paul Breslin  Great to see you joining the Prize!

We noticed your submission is currently unpublished. Was this your intention? We'd love to have your submission included in the Prize. Even if you've not started populating your Vision just yet, by publishing your submission you can make it public for other teams in your region to see, get in touch and possibly even collaborate with you.

You can publish it by hitting the "Publish" button at the top of your post. You can also update your Vision at any time before 31 January 2020 by clicking on the "Edit Contribution" on top. If you need inspiration or guidance, take a look at the Food Vision Prize Toolkit.
Here is the link to the Prize Toolkit:

Look forward to seeing your Vision evolve through the coming weeks.

Photo of Paul Breslin

It was published but then we realized we needed to check some permissions. So I unpublished it while we do that. I will publish it again shortly.