Food Sovereignty
Food insecurity is abundant on Native American reservations, with the lack of grocery stores and affordable fresh foods leading to high rates of diabetes, heart disease and obesity. As of 2018, a quarter of Native Americans lacked access to nutritious foods. When COVID-19 hit, the more than two-hour round trips to get food were often fruitless, as panic-induced buying emptied store shelves. Some tribes are now taking matters into their own hands. Today, solutions to the problem are starting to emerge with a variety of tribal and intertribal efforts exploring food sovereignty.

The Structure of Reservations

Federal government mismanagement of native lands is a major underlying cause of food insecurity. Through the federal trust doctrine, the U.S. government owns and manages native lands and assets. This means that reservation residents are not usually the owners of homes. This makes it impossible to mortgage property to start a business on a reservation. Federal land ownership hinders harnessing natural resources and developing the land. On-reservation development projects must go through 49 steps, spread across four government agencies before approval. In contrast, off-reservation projects require only four steps and this difference extends wait time from a couple of months to years.

These factors, in addition to low population density and poverty, cause companies to avoid investing in reservations. Tribal leaders or entrepreneurs are able to start farms. However, the leaders often lack the complementary infrastructures needed to get their products on grocery store shelves. As such, produce and meats often leave the reservation for services such as grading, freezing and packaging. By the time the products make it back to the reservation, the produce is less fresh and marked-up due to travel.

The Disruption of Traditional Diets

The lack of infrastructure and government restrictions on hunting and gathering create food insecurity on many reservations. The Pine Ridge Reservation imports 95% of foods and everyday necessities while the Menominee Reservation, the largest reservation east of the Mississippi River, has only one grocery store.

Due to the situation, some families’ only option is to seek government assistance. In 2015, 24% of Native families participated in the SNAP program, formerly known as the Food Stamps Program. This is almost twice as much involvement as that of the general population. Furthermore, nearly a fifth of all Native children participated in the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) free or reduced school lunches at the same time.

These programs, while important to feeding the hungry, do not conform with traditional diets. In 2014, the USDA’s Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations only allocated roughly $1 per meal. These meals are high in processed sugars and carbohydrates and lacking in fresh produce. This leads to high rates of health problems on reservations. For example, 42% of Native Americans struggle with obesity, and 20% of Navajo adults have diabetes, the third-highest rate in the world, below only Nauru and Mauritius.

Reclaiming Traditional Diets

In 2018, the Menominee Tribe of Wisconsin established the Department of Agriculture and Food Systems (DAFS). Embracing their traditional culture and diets, the Menominee move toward food sovereignty by hunting, fishing, gathering, tree tapping and farming.

DAFS Director Gary Besaw told The Borgen Project that the Menominee Tribe has a long history of agriculture. Archaeological evidence shows that the Menominee gardened through the last ice age. To do so, the Menominee used advanced techniques like raised-bed farming and biochar to improve soil quality. The tribe has reclaimed producing squash, maple syrup and corn, with hopes of growing orchards in the near future.

Nature and Intertribal Efforts

Prior to reservation life, the Menominee had access to fishing over much of the Great Lakes and their river systems. The current location of the Menominee Tribe’s reservation lacks this access. This makes it difficult to obtain enough fish without depleting the local resources.

Besaw stressed the importance of intertribal commerce and collaboration since each Tribal Nation has access to different food and lands. Besaw informed The Borgen Project that “re-establishing intertribal trade and commerce allows not only for economic growth in a sustainable green industry but also allows us to obtain healthy traditional foods.” Both products and skills move between tribes. The Menominee work with neighboring tribes and organic farms to grow food, manually dealing with weeds, pests and invasive species.

One of the Menominee Tribe’s partners, the Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin, worked with the Intertribal Agriculture Council to form the Mobile Farmer’s Market. This organization connects Native Americans across the United States with produce grown and harvested by Native Americans. Additionally, the Mobile Farmer’s Market hosts workshops to facilitate the spread of traditional skills.

In February 2019, a workshop occurred on the Menominee Reservation, teaching farming, seed keeping and healthy diets. According to Besaw, Menominee County has the highest rate of diabetes and heart disease in Wisconsin. The move toward food sovereignty and traditional diets has had a positive impact on the community’s health. To supplement these healthier diets, the Menominee Tribe is also conducting early-stage diagnosis and tracing family trees to see who has a genetic predisposition to diabetes.

Food Insecurity and COVID-19

According to Besaw, the COVID-19 pandemic illuminated the level of dependency that his tribe has on the federal government for food. The food boxes that the USDA provided were a lifesaver, though sometimes compromising his tribe’s goal of growing food indigenously, without GMOs and pesticides.

Across the country, many tribes have realized this as well. In Minnesota, the Dream of Wild Health intertribal nonprofit organization is working to distribute food to food-insecure Native Americans living in the Twin Cities. The organization owns a 30-acre pollinator farm outside of the Twin Cities and produces pesticide- and GMO-free produce.

Throughout the Dream of Wild Health’s history, the organization has received heirloom seeds from around North America. In 2019, it started to identify the seeds and return them to its community of origin, benefitting in-state and out-of-state tribes. According to another seed-saving organization, Indigenous Seed Keepers Network, the demand for seeds has increased around 4,900% during COVID-19, as Native Americans strive toward food sovereignty during these challenging times.

With many tribes and intertribal organizations around to help Native Americans attain food sovereignty, prospects are growing across North America. Not only are traditions returning but traditions are also making their way between and outside of tribes. As these efforts continue with success, it is time the U.S. government steps up to give tribes the support they need in a way that will not jeopardize their health further.

Riley Behlke
Photo: Flickr

out of poverty caucus
The Out of Poverty Caucus, also known as the COPC, was founded in January 2007 for the purpose of creating solutions to help end poverty in America. Led by congresswoman Barbara Lee, COPC brings together lawmakers and congressmen to focus their energy and resources into developing new policies to help find solutions to factors that contribute to poverty.

The COPC will develop legislation and gather support keeping the following principles in mind: Provide affordable healthcare, provide affordable housing, reduce unemployment and reduce hunger among many others.

The COPC also works to connect people to resources and anti-poverty associations. Government subsidized programs that provide affordable food like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, and Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, provide necessary services to people.

A census done in 2011 shows that approximately one in six Americans were living below the poverty line. That number settled around 46.2 million Americans. Safety net programs help keep many Americans from falling below the poverty line which is why it is important that the federal government continues to use federal funds to support these programs.

Medicaid is also an important program that the COPC seeks to continue funding for because it provides for Americans who cannot afford privatized health care. When private health care is so expensive, other alternatives need to be accessible to citizens.

“Social service programs serve as a life line for our nation’s low income and poor communities,” Lee said. “Social services need to be provided by the government to provide a safety net for people who have lost their jobs or have dealt with unfortunate circumstances.”

Though there have been differing opinions about what factors contribute to whether a person is considered to be living in poverty, there has been strong bipartisan support on the issue.

Coalitions like the Out of Poverty Caucus are important because they seek to represent the needs of impoverished Americans in Congress. In 2014 when Congress had multiple hearings on whether or not to drop bombs on Syria, SNAP was in the midst of being cut by five percent.

Representative Jim McGovern, (D-Mass), a proponent of putting the impoverished first, addressed the situation.

“I hope through all this Syria stuff, that we’re able to shed a bit of light on this, because I think most Americans, if they realize what’s going on, would be outraged,” McGovern said. “The fact is that foreign affairs, and especially military action abroad, will be more prominent in the media and in Congress.”

The COPC deals with numerous issues including childhood poverty, education, transportation, energy and education among many others. The organization uses congressmen, congresswomen, lawmakers and lawyers to put together legislation that focuses on bettering people’s lives.

Maxine Gordon

Sources: The Nation, Out of Poverty Caucus, Huffington Post

Congress Puts Food Stamps on the Chopping Block
On November 1, 2013, Congress failed to renew an increase to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as the food stamp program. Without this addition to the 2009 stimulus package, 47 million Americans who rely on food stamps to feed themselves and their families will lose as much as $45 per month in areas where the average income is only $16,000. The program itself took a $5 million dollar cut at a time where the rate of food insecurity in the United States is still as high as it was during the financial crisis in 2008.

High food insecurity rates are a key challenge facing lower to struggling middle class families, according to a paper published by the Hamilton Project, an economic policy initiative at the Brookings Institution. According to that study, nearly 90% of SNAP recipients live in households with at least one child, one disabled individual, or one elderly individual. More than 20% of children in the United States face food insecurity in 37 states, including the District of Columbia.

According to a Congressional Budget Office calculation, 91% of all SNAP spending goes to participants living at or below the poverty line—which is approximately a $23,550 annual income for a family of four. Proponents of the cuts to the food stamp program argue that the severe cuts, and future cuts, are necessary due to increasing fraud from assistance recipients. This argument is based on the notion that participation in the food stamp program has ballooned due to lenient eligibility rules. However, SNAP participation has historically increased as a result of unemployment rates. From 2007 to 2011, unemployment increased by 94%, resulting in a 70% increase in SNAP enrollment.

The effects of the food stamp cuts have already been seen in communities around the country. In one public school district, students were given a half-day and allowed to go home at noon. However, many children stayed longer so that they could receive their free school lunches. Parents responded that their children were hungry due to the cuts to their food stamp allotments. Congress may continue to make cuts to the program in the future, which likely will continue to affect many more American families.

– Daren Gottlieb

Sources: Huffington Post, The Guardian, Feeding America
Photo: Steve Sack

Last month all but 15 House Republicans voted to cut spending to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program by $39 billion over the next 10 years. In some states, SNAP (a.k.a food stamp) programs are being cut off to thousands of families, regardless of Congressional vote. Whether the cuts go through or not remains to be seen. The Senate approved much smaller cuts, and the White House has said it would veto any large cuts to the program.

The nation’s capitol, Mississippi, New Mexico, and Tennessee have the highest numbers of residents who benefit from the program. The price of SNAP has more than doubled since before the recession, and enrollment has increased to 15 percent of Americans. Republicans blame the high cost of the program, $82.5 billion in 2013, on relaxed enrollment standards, rather than need. According to the Census Bureau, if food stamps were counted as income 4 million Americans would have been lifted out of poverty last year.

In states like Kansas, waivers enacted during the recession, that relaxed the work requirements of recipients, will be rescinded. Those affected by the waivers ending would be less than 5 percent of the recipients of food stamps, but would still comprise tens of thousands of Americans. Kansas cites wanting to encourage employment over welfare. “Employment is the most effective way to escape poverty,” said Kansas Department of Children and Families Secretary Phyllis Gilmore.

According to Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, hunger in America may be reaching its highest levels since the Depression, but we know how to fix it.

“We almost ended hunger entirely in our nation. By the late ’70s, we had created the modern nutrition safety net, food stamps, WICC, school breakfast and lunch programs. It was in the Reagan era that we started going backwards, and we’ve been going backwards ever since due to rollbacks in several federal safety net programs and fundamental changes in the economy, and particularly the growth of the working poor,” says Berg.

Additionally, other expenses don’t disappear for the working poor, who take certain incidents and accidents, such as a busted engine or a health scare or even just regular health issues, harder economically. Food is somewhat expendable if it’s a choice between having a place to live or filling a prescription or getting to work.

We’re going to have to change our definition and image of what the hungry look like. According to Richard Schiffman, “most are white, many would self-identify as ‘middle class.'” It is a matter of sometimes having enough to eat and sometimes not. Those most affected are the young, especially during the summer. Quality less than quantity is an important factor, as well. Those that are hungry may be getting food that is nutritionally of little value to their overall health. The long and short term effects of poor nutrition are varied and sometimes irreversible.

Even without the proposed cuts one in six Americans will go hungry this year. The same representatives who voted for the cuts represent counties in need, like Representative Stephen Fincher of Tennessee, where 17.8 percent of his constituents don’t have enough food. Republicans point to the economic recovery, which by most standards has yet to benefit those who were most affected by the recession.

The government shutdown is doing little to help matters with other programs like WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) and the Emergency Food and Shelter Program suffering lapses in funding.

More cuts, between $30 and $50 per household for a family of three, are coming on November 1, when the additional funding given to SNAP, by the 2009 Recovery Act, ends. According to Triada Stampas, a senior director of the Food Bank of New York City, the upcoming cuts will remove 76 million meals from poor people in New York City. “Charity alone is not going to solve this problem,” says Stampas.

– The Borgen Project

Sources: Salon, USA Today
Photo: LETC