Lawmakers introduce bill to help tribes battle child hunger

Lawmakers introduce bill to help tribes battle child hunger

Tribes and pueblos would be able to administer their own federally funded child nutrition programs under legislation introduced Tuesday by three Western members of Congress.

The Tribal Nutrition Improvement Act of 2015 would streamline access to free school breakfasts and lunches and summer meal services by giving tribes more control over the programs, and would provide $2 million to help tribes nationally upgrade their computer systems.

Children living on reservations often have higher rates of poverty and food insecurity than kids in other parts of the United States, said the bill’s sponsors, U.S. Sens. Tom Udall, D-N.M., and Jon Tester, D-Mont., and U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, D-N.M.

In a statement, Udall said, “Native American children are some of the most vulnerable to hunger and obesity — two problems that school meal programs are proven to help combat. But tribal schools and Native American families often face unnecessary hurdles to access child nutrition programs.”

The bill would help break down the barriers to food aid by adding federally recognized pueblos and tribes to the list of governments that can administer the National School Lunch Program, the School Breakfast Program, the Summer Food Service Program and the Child and Adult Care Food Program.

“One of the benefits of the bill is that tribal schools and programs would administer programs directly instead of going through the state. That’s a big issue for tribal sovereignty,” said Jennifer Talhelm, a spokeswoman for Udall.

Tribal students are often twice as likely as others to need the food that schools provide. But Jennifer Ramo, executive director of the nonprofit New Mexico Appleseed, which works on anti-poverty programs and supports the bill, said children of pueblos and tribes often pay for school lunches and breakfasts when they don’t have to.

“This is a serious problem for Native American communities, which have some of the highest rates of food insecurity ever recorded in the United States,” Ramo said.

Part of the problem lies in proving who is eligible for the free and reduced-cost lunches, she said.

School districts with low-income families offer free and reduced-price lunch programs. Usually cafeterias have a list of children who qualify through one of two federal initiatives, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s commodities program and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which both provide basic food aid to families in need. The nutrition program, once called food stamps, is administered by states. Data on families is provided directly to school districts. But families apply separately for the commodities program through tribal governments or local governments.

“At each school, if 90 percent of students qualify for free and reduced lunches, then all kids get free meals,” Ramo said. “But the New Mexico Public Education Department isn’t tracking all tribal students, so some are having to pay.”

Ramo said some Native families can be reluctant to apply for the commodities program or share information about their income status with school districts, even when they qualify.

In addition, she said, nonprofits that want to provide nutrition programs can end up dealing with a lot of red tape through various state and tribal entities. The Navajo Nation is in parts of three states, and each currently has to sign off on some food programs.

Ramo cited a 2013 study by Johns Hopkins University that found 77 percent of Navajo families are “food insecure,” meaning neither adults nor children have easy access to healthy food on the vast Navajo Nation.

“By working to provide meals to children in Indian communities, we not only help our children, but also help their parents and their grandparents,” said Gov. Ronald Tenorio of the Pueblo of San Felipe.

Governments and community organizations that have endorsed the Tribal Nutrition Improvement Act include the National Congress of American Indians; San Felipe Pueblo; MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger; and the Food and Research Action Center.

New Mexico is home to 19 pueblos and three tribes, including the Navajo Nation, the largest tribe in the United States.

Santa Fe New Mexican - September 15, 2015