After a Fraught History, Some Tribes Finally Have the Power to Rethink 'Commodity Foods' | Civil Eats

After a Fraught History, Some Tribes Finally Have the Power to Rethink ‘Commodity Foods’

The USDA’s Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR) is both loved and reviled. Now, seven tribes have the opportunity to bring more fresh, local, traditional foods to their communities.

Frozen ground beef at the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations at the Five Sandoval Indian Pueblos FDPIR warehouse in Bernalillo, New Mexico (Photo credit: Andi Murphy)

Frozen ground beef at the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations at the Five Sandoval Indian Pueblos FDPIR warehouse in Bernalillo, New Mexico (Photo credit: Andi Murphy)

When every powwow was cancelled in 2020 and Native festivities moved to a Facebook group called the “Social Distance Powwow,” Jon Shellenberger noticed a sharp uptick in online sales of his T-shirts featuring the generic black and white labels for luncheon meat, peanut butter, enriched farina, and egg mix that once covered cans of commodity foods.

People from a number of different tribes began sharing the T-shirts, and, for a while, Shellenberger, a Yakama artist and archaeologist, couldn’t print enough.

Jon Shellenberger modeling one of his shirts from Native Anthro. (Photo courtesy of Jon Shellenberger.)

Jon Shellenberger modeling one of his shirts from Native Anthro. (Photo courtesy of Jon Shellenberger.)

To outsiders, wearing this kind of hardship on your chest might seem odd. The graphics on the labels, which read, “U.S. inspected and passed by Department of Agriculture,” are not exactly appetizing. But for those who grew up eating commodity foods, commonly known in Native America as “commods,” the nostalgia they evoked made the $20 shirts especially popular.

“[Commodity foods] are pretty close to my heart,” said Shellenberger. “They’re the building blocks of Native soul food. Our relatives didn’t always have money, but they made food [from commodity foods] with love. I think a lot about our grandmas, our moms, and our aunties. During COVID, [commodity foods] resonated with people more because we were thinking about our loved ones more than ever before.”

That’s one perspective. Others see commodity foods as part of a long legacy of destruction of Indigenous food sovereignty by the U.S. government. And that critical view shows up in the work of artists responding to the last half-century of Native life.

“[Commodity foods] are pretty close to my heart. They’re the building blocks of Native soul food. Our relatives didn’t always have money, but they made food [from commodity foods] with love.”

Muscogee Creek and Citizen Potawatomi artist Daniel McCoy, Jr.’s work has another perspective. In “Insulin Holocaust,” he paints a psychedelic nightmare scene of sweets, junk food, commodity foods, and syringes swirling around two overweight Natives. It’s a commentary on the addictive nature of highly processed American foods and its effect on Indigenous people.

John Hitchcock uses multiple printing methods to layer toy Indians, targets, and war paraphernalia on top of a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) label edited to read “Crusade,” “Terminal,” and “Progress.” In these prints, the Comanche and Kiowa artist questions the quality of commodity foods after losing his grandparents to cancer.

“I ate that food as a kid,” Hitchcock said. “The food itself, back then, was high in saturated fats and contributed a lot to the health problems we have today.”

Screenprints by John Hitchcock. Left:

Screenprints by John Hitchcock. Left: “Pork” (2003), published by Hybridpress. Right: “Cash Cow” (2004), published by Egress Press, Edinboro University of Pennsylvania. (Photos courtesy of John Hitchcock)

Commodity foods come from the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR), a USDA program, and they have a legacy that includes government control, poverty, and health disparities, as well as creativity, and Native resilience.

Now, the FDPIR program is in the midst of an important transformation. In recent years, tribes have gained access a much wider variety of fresh foods—far beyond the limited number of commodity foods than can be found on Shellenberger’s T-shirts. And a handful of tribes have recently received authorization to take control of the what foods are available through the program—and who produces them—as they work toward food sovereignty in their communities.

A Complex History

Commodity foods and the FDPIR are often seen as the latest incarnation of a violent and inequal historical relationship between tribes and the federal government.

The program, which started in the 1970s, doesn’t have a clear tie to the notorious rations the government provided tribes after they forced them into designated areas—often far from home and undesirable land—and took away their traditional ways of living of hunting, gathering, and eating. Rations included ingredients like flour, beef, coffee, and sugar that were foreign to tribal people. Some shipments of food arrived rotten and moldy. Many Native people suffered from malnutrition, illness, and starvation.

Commodity foods and the FDPIR are often seen as the latest incarnation of a violent and inequal historical relationship between tribes and the federal government.

The FDPIR program, on the other hand, started when it was authorized in the Food Stamp Act. This gave Native people living in rural reservations an alternative to the food stamp program, which required participants to shop in grocery stores that required as much as a full day of travel to access.

Today, more than more than 25 percent of all Native Americans receive some type of federal food assistance and FDPIR serves 276 tribes across the country. In 2019, there were over 83,000 people enrolled in the program, which cost $153 million. And the type and quality of the food offered through the program has changed radically in the last four and a half decades.

“Decades ago, that open food market wasn’t as robust,” said James Abraham, branch chief of community nutrition programs in the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service Southwest regional office. “So we had to contract with third party purchasers who purchased and packaged almost specifically for USDA.”

If, say, a small canning company owner got wind that the USDA was looking to buy tons of canned carrots and peas, the owner would make a deal with the USDA and fulfill the order, says Abraham.

As the American food market became more robust and populated by industrial powerhouses on both sides of the market, the food available to the USDA changed, too. In recent years, Abraham adds, there has been more variety and more brand-named foods available to FDPIR users.

At the Five Sandoval Indian Pueblos Food Distribution Program in Bernalillo, New Mexico, the shift is visible. The warehouse looks exactly like a grocery store, with shopping carts by the door and two checkout counters, and an array of fresh, canned, and shelf-stable foods.

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In the 1990s, warehouse manager Mark Sequist said, everything in the store was canned except for the cheese and butter, which was kept frozen. “All of our meats were canned, all our juices were canned. We didn’t receive any fresh produce or anything like that back then,” he recalls. “Now we’re getting frozen meats, like the roast beef, one-pound hamburger, one-pound bison, pork chops, whole chicken, chicken breasts.”

Sequist spends a great deal of his time stocking large refrigerators with fresh produce, such as broccoli, carrots, tomatoes, lemons, grapefruits, and grapes.

Holding a refrigerator door open with his body, Sequist opens a foot-long rectangular cardboard box revealing a block of gold-colored American cheese. This stuff is legendary in Native America. It’s not like any American cheese available at grocery stores. It’s not like Velveeta either. It’s just different. It melts easy and adds a salty accent to tacos and sandwiches.

Block

Block “commodity cheese” at the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations at the Five Sandoval Indian Pueblos FDPIR warehouse. (Photo credit: Andi Murphy)

Sequist shared his own nostalgia. “That was one thing we always looked forward to making; beans and green chile and tortillas [with cheese]. The nice thing my grandma used to do when she was still around and still cooking, is she would use the commodity cheese in her tortilla roll like a quesadilla . . . you can’t beat it.”

While the cheese has remained the same, there are more changes coming to the program with tribes at the wheel.

‘Why Can’t We Have Fresh Foods?’

Historically, the USDA chose and purchased food and shipped it to tribally operated warehouses. Tribes had no control over what was available or where it came from.

That began to change in 1989 with the inception of the National Association of Food Distribution Programs on Indian Reservations (NAFDPIR), a collection of tribal representatives who act as consultants and advocates for tribes, which allowed them to have their voices heard by federal controllers of the program.

“The inception of the organization was to strengthen community between FNS (Food and Nutrition Services) at a national level, regional level, and tribal level,” said Mary Greene-Trottier, president of the NAFDPIR and a member of the Spirit Lake Nation in North Dakota.

And it all started with the purchase of ground bison in 1996 for tribes in the Dakotas and mountain west, Greene-Trottier said. “That was a bonus item. But fresh produce was an overall goal. It was like, ‘Why can’t we have fresh foods?’”

After that pilot, and a collaborative effort among the tribal organizations that operate the food warehouses, the program began to change in important ways. Now, Greene-Trottier and some tribes are taking even more control of the program. This is happening by way of the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975—also referred to as Public Law 93-638 or just “638”—an act of Congress that authorizes federally recognized tribes to operate government services for their own communities.

These community services (healthcare, education, and some basic community services) were promised to tribes through the Federal Trust Responsibility, a policy developed over a century from government-tribe relations where the government agreed to protect tribal sovereignty and self-governance. It was granted, in exchange for millions of acres of land taken from tribes or signed over in treaties.

Fresh fruits and vegetables line the shelves of the refrigerators at the Five Sandoval Indian Pueblos FDPIR warehouse in Bernalillo, New Mexico. (Photo credit: Andi Murphy)

Fresh fruits and vegetables in the refrigerators at the Five Sandoval Indian Pueblos FDPIR warehouse. (Photo credit: Andi Murphy)

Communities have used 638 authorization to replace government services in a number of ways. For example, the Tuba City Health Care Corporation and Santa Fe Indian School are tribally operated and funded by contracts with the Indian Health Service and Bureau of Indian Education, respectively. Also, many tribal police departments operate on a 638 basis and contract with the Bureau of Indian Affairs to carry out every day police work in Indian Country. But it has never been used for food production, until now: A new section written into the 2018 Farm Bill established demonstration projects and $3 million for tribes to manage and purchase foods through the FDPIR for their own communities.

“For the first time, tribes are being offered 638 authorization when it comes to the food program (FDPIR),” said Erin Parker, director of the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative at the University of Arkansas School of Law.

Parker sees the shift as an unprecedented nod to tribal sovereignty. “It’s a really strong acknowledgment from Congress for tribes to feed their own people like we’ve done for hundreds of years. It’s been a really long road.”

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Eight FDPIR tribes were awarded 638 contracts in the $3.5 million Self-Determination Demonstration Project, and they include the Oneida Nation/Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin, the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa from Wisconsin, the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians from Michigan, the Lummi Nation from Washington State, the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium (ANTHC) from Alaska, the Chickasaw Nation from Oklahoma, and the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians from Mississippi.

Not only do the contracts give tribes the ability to choose and purchase their own foods, but they can now source food from local and tribally owned food businesses. The initial contracts are expected to last three years.

In a USDA press release, Stacy Dean, deputy under secretary for food, nutrition, and consumer services said: “USDA is fully committed to supporting the restoration of indigenous food, to empower indigenous agricultural economies and to improve indigenous health through traditional foods. This FDPIR demonstration project is an important part of that effort. We are embracing this opportunity to make long-term enhancements to FDPIR by learning more about the nutritional needs and preferences of tribal communities.”

“What better way of giving a hand up to our own community [than] to purchase and procure fresh and local. You can’t get any more fresh than [tribes producing] their own food.”

Parker’s group, the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative, and other advocacy groups like the NAFDPIR, Native Food and Nutrition Resource Alliance, and the Intertribal Agriculture Council are looking for more opportunities for tribes and the FDPIR in the 2023 Farm Bill, she said.

“What better way of giving a hand up to our own community [than] to purchase and procure fresh and local,” said Mary Greene-Trottier. “You can’t get any more fresh than [tribes producing] their own food.”

Ultimately, these changes to the FDPIR could change the way it’s viewed by some of the leading voices and activists in the Native American food movement, who have often criticized and demonized the program in the past.

Nearly 27 percent of Native Americans live in poverty, according to the 2017 U.S. Census American Community Survey. And by the USDA’s own mapping and research, much of Indian Country is located in areas that have been determined to be “food deserts.” In some of the most rural places in Indian Reservations, some people don’t have running water or electricity, making shelf-stable, canned foods a necessity.

John Hitchcock, Crusade, screenprint 15”x20” (2003). Published by Hybridpress. (Photo courtesy of John Hitchcock)

John Hitchcock, Crusade, screenprint 15”x20” (2003). Published by Hybridpress. (Photo courtesy of John Hitchcock)

For these reasons Greene-Trottier says she’s always careful to make sure she’s not shaming anyone’s access to food, even as she’s trying to change the food itself. “I was taught to never make fun of anybody else’s food,” she said. “To use that as a platform is insulting to our tribal communities.”

Artist John Hitchcock has had similar moments of reflection. In a conversation with an art gallery visitor recently, he was asked indignantly why he choose to use commodity food labels to symbolize fear and panic. As he started to explain, the visitor interrupted to say that he and his family still eat these foods and rely on the program.

“It made me think about the real situation,” Hitchcock said. After a pause he added, “I still have my grandma’s commodity cookbook [from The Comanche tribe].” With a smile audible through his voice, he added, “It’s all greasy because she always had it right there by the stove.”

Andi Murphy is Civil Eats' Indigenous Foodways fellow for 2021-22; she is multimedia journalist and the creator, host, and producer of the award-winning Toasted Sister Podcast, a show about Indigenous food. Read more >

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