Once a month, packages flush with cuts of fresh buffalo, wild rice, and other fresh, traditional foods arrive at the doorsteps and pantries of the members of two tribes in Wisconsin, the Menominee Tribe and the Oneida Nation. The buffalo comes from Oneida Nation’s own farms, along with apples and roasted beef. The wild rice comes from Spirit Lake Nation in North Dakota, and there’s also fresh fish from Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa in Wisconsin.
In late 2021, the two Great Lakes region tribes entered into a joint “demonstration” project under the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR), the nation’s federal food assistance program for income-eligible tribal households.
In years past, the foods in the program would have come from a bureaucratic smorgasbord of third-party vendors and distributed en masse through two massive U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) distribution centers. For decades, tribal communities looking to feed their own people have run into regulatory red tape, some of which has been a major barrier to providing culturally relevant and nutritious foods.
Now, change is afoot as a result of the FDPIR Self-Determination Demonstration Project, a new, $3.5-million effort focused on seven food distribution pilot projects in eight tribal nations. Some tribes in the program include the Mississippi Band of Choctaw, Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma, and Lummi Nation from Washington state.
Launched in November 2021, the pilot program allows these selected tribes to buy food directly from commercial vendors—many of them from within their own tribes and from their neighbors—instead of providing a standardized set of options typical of the FDPIR or “commodity foods” program.
A few years ago, a group of Menominee elders said that, without their own source of food, the tribe was looking at hard times. Land and water quality, they said, would degrade due to climate change—and something needed to be done.
Of these tribal projects, the Menominee and Oneida in Wisconsin are the only ones who decided to share food procurement and distribution operations, to achieve a resilient local system to buttress against future food shocks and provide healthy, culturally relevant foods for low-income tribal members who experience elevated rates of diabetes, hypertension, and obesity.
For Gary Besaw, director of the Department of Agriculture, and Food Systems (DAFS) and food distribution program for the Menominee, the decision to work with the Oneida stemmed from the fact that his tribe has no farms of its own. A few years back, a group of elders told Besaw that, without their own source of food, the tribe was looking at hard times. Land and water quality, they said, would degrade due to climate change and something needed to be done.
“I was told we needed to look at trying to develop a food system to be more independent and sovereign,” Besaw recalls.
And while food sovereignty within tribal nations is far from new, the pandemic exacerbated food insecurity for many, illuminating longstanding failures of the federally managed national food system to serve these communities. In response, Native peoples across the country have been mobilizing to meet their communities’ short- and long-term needs, namely working to improve and expand Native food and agriculture practices, and expanding their interest in alternative models.
So while the limited FDPIR pilot is starting off small, it’s a major step for the participating tribes. And it has prompted a much larger call from across Indian Country, as tribal leaders, Indigenous policy experts, and food sovereignty advocates from 170 tribal nations and 30 inter-tribal organizations are pushing for added provisions in the 2023 Farm Bill, as well as streamlined or revised USDA regulations. The goal is to permanently allow food procurement policies for small-batch Native producers—to reproduce what’s happening in places like Wisconsin at a much wider scale—and expand the list of tribal-specific Indigenous foods in the FDPIR program.
The FDPIR program has a notoriously fraught history. Researchers have noted its colonial legacy, describing U.S. Indian food policy as a “method of control,” which helped make the theft of Indigenous land possible and enabled the government to force treaties, while also including the encouragement of white agricultural settlement, the control of Indian hunting and gathering rights, and the limiting of the diet available to Indian food-ration recipients.
Today, FDPIR serves 48,000 people on average each month, with most recipients residing in the western United States, according to a 2016 study by the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS). Historically, FDPIR food packages have included surplus commodity foods such as bleached flour, sugar, white potatoes. Research and data collection related to the program have been scant since its inception in 1977, and the last nationally representative evaluation of the program was conducted in the late 1980s. Yet, throughout the program’s history, tribal nations have been calling for greater authority over the food their members receive with more nutritious foods as a forefront issue to tackle long-term dietary health concerns.
In June 2022, from hundreds of miles away, Besaw testified virtually on the benefits of the USDA self-determination pilot program in a House committee on Agriculture hearing. Overall, he told the committee members, the Menominee Tribe has been happy to participate in the pilot project. They are providing healthier food, with noticeable differences in freshness. The tribe is expanding the capabilities of its tribal staff, farmers, Indigenous vendors and food producers, as well as educating the USDA on the specific community challenges.
He also made requests such as for “more assistance from the Agriculture Marketing Service to develop a point of contact to work with tribes to walk them through the process of becoming an eligible in the system.” He continued, “We also have concerns about Indigenous representation within the FNS system.” Where available, he said, tribes ask that FNS positions be filled by tribal members or personnel trained to specifically work with tribal nations and their food producers.
Besaw is just one of many who want to make the program permanent and increase its funding through the next farm bill, the once-every-five-year, trillion-dollar package of laws that shapes the nation’s food system.
For years, efforts to improve FDPIR failed to gain traction and the nation’s policy makers barely mentioned tribal nations in discussions of food policy. That began to change when, in 2010, tribal leaders in health and governance testified at a House Agriculture Committee “Hearing to Review the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations.” They spoke about the importance of the FDPIR program to alleviate widespread food insecurity and recommended improving the nutrition quality and cultural relevancy to meet their communities’ dire health needs.
At the time, tribes asked the USDA to add blue corn and other traditional corn varieties, bison, smoked salmon, and wild rice (to name a few) to the list of available FDPIR foods.
“The drastic shift from subsistence and traditional foods to foods high in sugar, starch, and fat created a healthcare crisis in Indian Country,” said Andrew Joseph, Jr., who was serving as a council member of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation and an executive committee member of the National Indian Health Board at the time. “High [rates of] obesity and diabetes have resulted in a kind of cardiovascular disease, the number one killer in Indian Country. For these reasons, it is critical that this program be continued and improved and provide quality nutritional products.”
The 2014 Farm Bill nearly piloted a traditional food procurement program for tribes. It contained a provision authorizing $2 million for a FDPIR traditional foods pilot project to test on one or two tribal nations, but congress failed to make appropriations to fund it.
Then, the 2018 iteration of the bill contained dozens of Native food and agriculture provisions, thanks in large part to the Native Farm Bill Coalition (NFBC), a cadre of 170 members made up of tribal nations, Native organizations, and non-Native allied groups that worked with USDA to advocate for tribal needs and to help shape policy language.
“It was a tremendously successful activity because there were about 63 tribal-specific provisions in the  Farm Bill, which is more than we had ever seen previously,” said Lexie Holden of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, the associate director of policy and government relations for the Intertribal Agricultural Council, a tribal agricultural advocacy organization and co-founder of NFBC. “It had only been [in the last] couple decades of farm bills that they even said ‘tribal nation’ or ‘Native American,’ or really included us in any way.”
In the 1970s and 1980s, tribes were often told all their concerns should be directed at the DOI’s Bureau of Indian Affairs, says Holden, even though as American citizens, other agencies are just as relevant to them. “It was a tremendously uphill battle.”
When legislators passed the 2018 Farm Bill, dubbed the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act, it included a provision that authorized the USDA to establish a fund to procure traditional, locally grown foods for the FDPIR program—acting on longstanding concerns by tribal leaders who have questioned the nutrition quality of the FDPIR food packages. It was a step in the right direction, if small, but it took another three years before Congress made appropriations to the fund the pilot.
By 2018, Gary Besaw had served as a tribal council member for about 15 years, working on tribal legislation. Traveling around the country, meeting other tribal leaders, he was a little envious of some of the tribes that were better set up to feed their communities, had more food options, and could withstand food security challenges. This concern prompted the partnership with the Oneida Nation, which is about an hour’s drive to the southeast.
At the time, the Oneida Nation had been receiving and distributing commodity foods provided by the USDA, which assists income-eligible family households, while the tribe’s farm, orchard, and aquaponics facility provided foods for their tribal schools. Their grass-fed shorthorn beef went to their schools and an emergency pantry, and they also canned and preserved their own tomatoes, cucumbers, and onions, and grew their traditional Oneida heirloom white corn, sweet corn, bergamot, and tobacco for community harvesting and workshops.
Then, with the 2018 Farm Bill on the horizon, tribal leaders and Native agriculture advocates of the NFBC (including Menominee and Oneida) began lobbying the USDA to support statute and regulatory hurdles. If tribes were given funds and purchasing power, the Oneida and other nations could use some of those funds to support its own agriculture operations. But they knew that would require a paradigm shift for the USDA, some tribal-mental-gymnastics, and an introductory course for the USDA on the Indian Self-Determination & Education Assistance Act (ISDEAA), also called “638” authority.
“We wanted to show [the USDA] several things: One, that we had the sophistication to run these [programs], to be able to do that [food] ordering, and number two, we wanted to reduce the carbon footprint so we are not shipping from across country,” said Besaw. “Number three, we wanted to model a more resilient type of local food system, because we saw all the fires, floods, drought and everything else.”
For decades, tribal communities would run into various USDA regulatory red tape, some of which has been a major barrier to providing culturally relevant and nutritious foods. Native producers were systematically excluded from competing for USDA food procurement contracts. Because of the smaller size of their operations, typical Native producers either did not meet eligible contracting requirements or they weren’t competitive by market standards to bid for contracts.
“Programs like these keep food dollars circulating within our communities, create jobs for our citizens, and make sure that those in need have access to the kinds of healthy foods that have supported us from time immemorial.”
In addition, traditional foods have long been viewed as niche products in the national market and aren’t well-represented on the USDA’s pre-approved list of foods, which further alienates many Native producers from becoming eligible certified vendors to secure USDA contracts to supply these foods.
To become a qualified USDA vendor under Agricultural Marketing Service standards, producers must go through an extensive application process and requires large-scale manufacturing from vendors to supply vast quantities of food to fulfill its federal food assistance program orders.
Many federally recognized tribes, which are entitled to an array of federal services (healthcare, law enforcement, schools) have opted to manage and carry out their own services by way of “638” contracts with the Indian Health Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Indian Health Service, and now the USDA—for now, at least.
The FDPIR pilot program is effectively breaking the USDA’s “638” seal and it’s a shift that tribes hope is permanent.
“We wanted to expose the USDA to working with a tribal consortium,” wrote Candace Skenandore, self-governance coordinator for Oneida Nation, over email.
The Menominee had the Food Nutrition Service visit the tribe twice to learn about the 638 contracting agreements, with other officials from USDA coming on FNS’ second visit. The agreements allow for both partnered tribes to operate under one contract or compact, Skenandore explains.
Between the two tribes, the joint-FDPIR program serves upwards of 400 households, though it can vary month-to-month due to those families’ income levels.
In the first six months of the initial three-year pilot program, tribal members’ feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. Native vendors have a steady flow of income, and tribal governmental staff are building their capacities further to serve their people and administer the program.
“Participant satisfaction is obviously awesome, but I think one of the things we’re interested in over time is long term impacts to both physical health and mental health from access to [these] foods,” said Erin Parker, executive director of the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative at the University of Arkansas, and a founding NFBC member.
And while the pilot project has undoubtedly been an important advancement for tribes, the farm bill coalition, and tribal officials we spoke to said there are more improvements the USDA could make. For one, the contracts only allow for replacing pre-listed USDA foods with those same foods, but locally grown. True “self-governance” says to Skenandore, would allow for authority and flexibility to revise the foods on the list, which could include more traditional foods like maple syrup and allow tribes to adapt to unpredictable food production challenges, like shorter growing seasons and changing environmental conditions.
But above all, tribes want to see the demonstration project become a permanent fixture at the USDA, which means recurring base funding for all tribes to design food purchasing and distribution program that fit their own unique community needs and priorities.
“Programs like these,” Holden said while testifying during a March 2022 Committee on Indian Affairs oversight hearing on supporting tribal businesses, “keep food dollars circulating within our communities, create jobs for our citizens, and make sure that those in need have access to the kinds of healthy foods that have supported us from time immemorial.”
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