Distributive policy

Food security survey reveals gap in federal response and need for better policy

A cross-organizational survey of Indigenous communities found that nearly half of respondents experienced food insecurity during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Native American Agriculture Fund, the Food Research and Action Center and the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative at the University of Arkansas came together last week to release a wide-ranging report on the food issues facing tribes. faced during the first waves of COVID.

The 71-page report, titled “Reimagining Hunger Responses in Times of Crisis: Insights from Case Examples and A Survey of Native Communities’ Food Access during COVID-19,” surveyed 504 respondents in 34 states as of February 2021.

(This story was originally published on January 23, 2022 by Tribal Business News. It is republished here with permission.)

More than two-thirds of respondents lived on a tribal reservation and averaged 3.8 members per household, with a median household income of $30,000 to $50,000.

The survey, which asked respondents about their experiences between March 2020 and April 2021, said 48% of respondents said their food didn’t last and they didn’t have access to stronger. of the pandemic. This figure rose to 56% in households with children and 59% in households with children under 5 years old.

Food Research and Action Center President Luis Guardia said during a presentation on the report that the data collected could better inform tribes, policymakers and advocates of the urgent need in Indian Country. caused by COVID-19.

“You need good data for good policy,” Guardia said. “For too long Indigenous communities have not been properly counted, Indigenous members have been combined with other people and referred to as ‘other’, which has essentially made people invisible. You can’t make good politics out of that.

During the first wave of COVID-19 and subsequent supply chain and business disruptions, Indigenous communities suffered even more than other ethnic groups. COVID-19 has exacerbated existing problems on tribal lands, such as poor access to grocery stores.

Additionally, the federal response following the initial wave of COVID-19 has been slow and ineffective, a problem the report attributes to “inadequate” federal data collection on Indigenous peoples.

For example, indigenous communities received delayed or interrupted food aid because tribal governments were not considered eligible administrators of certain commodity and child nutrition programs. The report specifically highlighted the Emergency Food Assistance Program, or TEFAP, as one that tribal governments should be allowed to administer.

Even the Indian Reservation Food Distribution Program, which provides USDA food to income-eligible Native families, has been affected. The report notes that the FDPIR suffered supply chain disruptions and infrastructure issues, such as interrupted food deliveries, which it attributed to insufficient resources.

FDPIR has received less COVID-19 funding ($50 million) compared to other federal nutrition initiatives like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which has received over $29 billion in additional funding so far. in April 2021.

That hasn’t stopped tribal citizens from turning directly to their governments for help in meeting their growing food needs, according to the report.

While SNAP helped – usage of benefits increased from 14% to 20% among respondents – FDPIR saw an even bigger increase in usage, from 11% to 34% of respondents. Notably, SNAP requires recipients to go to grocery stores to make purchases with state-issued EBT cards, which has been a problem for natives who don’t have access to grocery stores and for vulnerable elderly people. COVID, according to the report.

“Tribal governments and Indigenous-led agricultural initiatives play an important role in providing their citizens with access to food, especially in times of extreme crisis,” said NAAF CEO Toni Stanger-McLaughlin. “Indian Country has persisted in doing what it has been doing for centuries, forging a resilient and robust response to the difficulties systematically created.”

The Benefits Utilization Exchange presented an interesting data point because of the regulations around SNAP and FDPIR, according to Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative Director Erin Parker. Regulations prevent a person from using both programs in the same month, meaning families must choose which benefits they will receive.
Parker said the increased use of the FDPIR, alongside an increased reliance on tribal governments to distribute food and “step up” in the face of an anemic federal response, showed that tribal citizens ultimately trusted their own communities to deliver them. to help.

“Reliance on the FDPIR, which is tribally run, has increased,” Parker said. “What this tells me is that it says the same things that many Indian countries already know: in times of crisis, tribal citizens look to their governments.

“It’s not a revolutionary idea, it’s always been true, but I think it’s important that policy makers see this respect for sovereignty reflected in this data.”

The report outlines potential solutions to Indigenous food insecurity, discussing everything from reinvented Indigenous food economies to policy changes through Congress.

For example, the report calls for a 20% USDA set aside for tribal organizations, governments, Native-led nonprofits, and Native producers in each of the USDA’s program authorities, as well as the mandatory collection of data on Native American and Alaska Native peoples within the government. food safety surveys.

The report also pushes for an expansion of tribal participation in USDA markets, creating more avenues for native-grown foods to be included in nutrition programs. This could protect programs like FDPIR from further supply disruptions as COVID variants continue to spread, as well as address long-standing health issues caused by chronically poor diets, the report said.

While some of these changes require statutory action, the USDA could make changes immediately by partnering its Agricultural Marketing Service with agricultural organizations such as the Intertribal Council on Agriculture for technical assistance, training, and certification. providers, the report’s authors said.

Another set of recommendations would give tribal governments greater authority in administering federal nutrition programs through less bureaucracy and more direct oversight.

“Congress should give full authority to tribal governments to function as government agencies in the administration of federal nutrition programs,” the report said. “This is critically important to the recognition of tribal sovereignty and would ease the administrative burden on tribes, like the Navajo Nation, who straddle multiple states and must coordinate with multiple state agencies to provide school meals.”

Additionally, the report notes that tribes should be treated as separate governments working through a direct federal-tribal relationship rather than battling with state agencies for access to resources.

“For programs that may currently be administered by tribal governments, tribal governments may have to go to the state and sometimes to two or three separate state governments if the tribal government spans multiple state borders “, according to the report. “This is unacceptable because tribal governments’ relationship with the US government is at the federal level, so the requirement for state government approval should never be in place.”

Ultimately, the rise in food insecurity during the pandemic comes down to a slow federal response caused by insufficient data and long-standing issues with federal nutrition programs, all of which can be addressed with better policy. .

However, decision makers must first have access to the data, Guardia said.

“I think what we’re hearing a lot here is some excitement to have the insight and some of the information in this report has legs…to go beyond the immediate circle of interested people,” Guardia said. . “We need this information to be shared with defenders. We need this to be available and known as we have these conversations with decision makers.