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Tribal Nations Want More Control Over Their Food Supply
North Dakota Ag Connection - 02/23/2024

For years, the Oneida Nation has been growing crops and raising cattle and buffalo on its 65,000-acre reservation near Green Bay, Wisconsin. Now, some of that food is doing more than nourishing people: It’s helping undo centuries of government overreach. As part of a pilot program included in the 2018 farm bill, the tribe is using federal dollars to buy food grown on the reservation and by other nearby Native producers and distributing it for free to low-income members of its tribe and another, the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin.

The program has given the tribe more say over the food the federal government provides to low income people on its reservation. And it has bolstered markets for local producers, says Vanessa Miller, the food and agriculture area manager for the tribe.

Food sovereignty, which includes peoples’ right to healthy and culturally appropriate food and the right to define their own food and agriculture systems, is inherent to tribes, Miller says: “This is all rooted in our identity as Oneida people. We’re empowering our communities and ourselves by taking our health into our own hands.”

Over the past two centuries, the reservation system and other federal policies devastated many tribes’ food systems, disrupting their hunting, fishing, farming, and harvesting traditions. Today, about one in four Native Americans receives some kind of federal food assistance. For a long time, this consisted of “dumped food from a faceless and uncaring federal government,” said Mary Greene-Trottier, a member of the Spirit Lake Sioux nation who manages the pilot program on her reservation and leads a group of tribal members that advise the USDA on the program, in testimony before a House subcommittee in 2021. Tribes received foods like lard and wheat flour that were foreign to their diets and that sometimes arrived “rancid and rotten,” according to a report commissioned by the American Heart Association.

Tribal nations have for decades worked to reassert authority over their food systems. But those efforts got little support from the farm bill. That changed in the lead-up to 2018, when tribal governments, Native American farmers and ranchers, and advocates pushed for a farm bill that would, for the first time, reflect their priorities and respect tribes’ inherent sovereignty. The coalition made important inroads: 63 provisions in the 2018 legislation directly address tribal nations. One of the most important was the pilot program the Oneida Nation is taking part in.

That pilot, called — rather paternalistically — the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR) Self-Determination Demonstration Project, is up for renewal during this farm bill cycle. FDPIR is a larger program that was created in 1977 as a counterpart to SNAP, formerly known as food stamps. Like all income-eligible Americans, tribal members can enroll in SNAP and use it to buy food at grocery stores. But the remote location of many reservations can make it hard to use these benefits. FDPIR, which arrives as a monthly allotment of food, was meant as an alternative. In some places, tribal citizens can get food boxes delivered to their homes, while in others they choose from provisions arranged as they would be in a grocery store. FDPIR, which cost about $116 million last year, delivers food to up to 85 percent of people living on some reservations.

In the early days, the program offered mainly the salt-, fat-, and sugar-laden commodity foods that drive chronic disease, though due to pressure from tribes the selection has improved somewhat over the years to include more fresh produce and a handful of culturally important foods, like buffalo meat and wild rice. Yet the federal government still decides what foods it will distribute, and it makes its own purchasing agreements with producers, a system that favors large-scale vendors. That’s led to missed opportunities for Native American farmers — especially when the USDA buys traditional foods, like blue corn, from non-Native producers. And there are still problems with quality — it’s not uncommon for produce to travel long distances and arrive spoiled, and many foods that are traditional to certain tribes are still unavailable.

The pilot project, attempting to fix some of these lingering issues, has since October of 2021 given 16 tribes in nine states $10.1 million to source some of the ingredients that FDPIR provides.

Producing their own food is critical to the Oneida Nation’s economic security and the health of its citizens, Miller says. By revitalizing its food system, the tribe can help its people physically reconnect to their land and culture and recover from the historical trauma caused by federal policies.

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