American Indian and Alaska Native communities have high rates of food insecurity, as Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap project shows. And the average cost of food is higher in counties with a majority American Indian and Alaska Native population, making it even more difficult for low-income families to get enough to eat. But policies and programs in Indian Country are striving to address this deficit, recognizing that solutions must be culturally relevant to have an impact.
The Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations is a supplemental nutrition assistance program that distributes monthly food packages to eligible participants through home delivery or pick up at sites in tribal areas, including warehouses, supermarkets, and mobile locations. The program was established under the Food Stamp Act of 1977 as an explicit alternative to SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly food stamps) because reservation residents often lived too far from SNAP offices and grocery stores to obtain and use SNAP benefits.
In addition to making it easier to access healthy foods, the program is sensitive to tribal culture and the unique needs of residents living on Indian reservations. Here are some ways the program demonstrates a high level of cultural relevance—and how it can do more to meet tribes’ needs.
Partnering with tribes
The food distribution program is administered through the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service, which purchases and ships food to respective organizations for distribution, sets guidelines for household eligibility, and provides funds for program administration, while tribes or state government agencies administer the programs locally. Tribes are responsible for designing the programming and food delivery methods that reflect the diversity of their respective tribal government, culture, and geographic setting.
By partnering with local tribal leaders, the program avoids a paternalistic approach to nutrition assistance and facilitates a more balanced power dynamic that ensures the program is meaningful to participants.
For example, representatives of the National Association of Food Distribution Programs on Indian Reservations, tribal and state agencies that administer local food distribution programs, and federal and tribal health professionals work with the Food and Nutrition Service on a Food Package Review Work Group to better meet the nutritional needs and food preferences of program participants without significantly increasing costs.
Employing tribal members as program staff
In interviews, tribal leaders and program staff spoke positively about the food distribution program and its importance to their communities. Staff shared that participants sometimes struggled to feel culturally accepted at county agencies and felt more comfortable coming to the program’s offices on reservations.
“All of the employees here are tribal,” one staff member said. “When participants walk through the door, they don’t feel like we’re not part of their community. They feel like we know them; they feel comfortable talking to us.”
Participants echoed these feelings of satisfaction with the staff. Ninety-three percent of households were pleased with their interactions with program staff and noted their flexibility and helpfulness as particularly exemplary.
Creating a more culturally relevant food package
Staff mentioned additional ways to make the program more culturally relevant. Because traditional and cultural foods vary across regions, one suggestion was to sell local foods at program offices, generating benefits to tribes and local businesses and reducing delivery costs.
For example, program participants in some regions enjoyed having white hominy in their food package, while participants in other areas preferred yellow hominy. Likewise, blue cornmeal is more popular in the Southwest, and bison is more popular in the Great Plains and other regions. Though these nuances may seem trivial to outsiders, the cuisine varies across reservations just as the culture does, and it’s important to get it right for everyone.
The program recently received funding for traditional and locally grown foods, and Native-owned suppliers have been contracted to provide bison and blue cornmeal, items recently added to the food package.
Meeting the needs of households across the country is complicated, but creating a culturally relevant program structure and content has led to genuine community support for the food distribution program. By recognizing the challenges of remote locations and prioritizing cultural preferences, the program provides a safe space for participants to access healthy supplemental food packages and helps low-income households on Native American reservations incorporate foods native to their communities.