July 13, 2018

Senate Farm Bill Offers Promising Policies for Indian Country

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For thousands of years before European contact, Native Americans enjoyed self-sufficiency and self-determination. Native nations sustained themselves with rich traditions and practices for foraging, farming, ranching and fishing. And before processed and commodity foods entered the diets of tribal communities, Native Americans experienced low rates of disease. But today, Native families have limited access to culturally relevant and healthy food through federal food programs, and as a result, suffer from some of the highest rates of hunger, diabetes and obesity in the country. 

It’s against this backdrop that MAZON supports the Native Farm Bill Coalition’s[1] efforts to leverage the Farm Bill as a vehicle to improve nutrition, food access and agricultural policies for Indian Country. This omnibus piece of legislation could unlock the potential for tribes to feed themselves within their own tribal food systems. 

While the recently passed House and Senate versions of the bill include more tribal provisions than any previous Farm Bills, the Senate has proven itself to be a key ally in advancing tribal interests within the Farm Bill. The Senate version of the bill includes $5 million for a demonstration project to enable tribes to have “638 authority”[2] over the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR), including decisions about what foods are included in the FDPIR food package. Over half of all tribes in the country participate in FDPIR, which serves 90,000 households with a monthly food box of commodity items selected by USDA. 

While USDA has worked to improve the FDPIR program by including some traditional foods like bison and wild rice into the FDPIR food package, more improvements are needed. By putting food procurement decisions in the hands of tribes, the Senate proposal will accelerate the incorporation of traditional foods (foods based on the ancestral diets of Native people), which studies show are a healthier alternative to the typical American diet and can help alleviate the harmful effects of diabetes, heart disease and other nutrition-related conditions. 

Giving tribes more control could also help contribute to the development of tribal agriculture markets by opening up the FDPIR program to more Native food producers. Tribes have long advocated for more local procurement and a focus on more Native-grown food for the FDPIR package. 

Enacting food policies that help tribes recover and incorporate traditional foods into their diets is an essential part of promoting tribal self-determination. Tribes have made great strides to regain control of their local food systems, and the demonstration project in the Senate version oh the Farm Bill represents an important step forward towards reversing centuries of harm inflicted by the colonialism of the U.S. government, which has limited tribes’ ability to develop local food and agricultural sectors and negatively impacted their health. 

MAZON will be working to ensure that this important provision is included in the final version of Farm Bill. The hope is that with greater control, tribes can shape FDPIR into a program that goes beyond its original and limited purpose of distributing surplus commodities, and becomes a powerful vehicle for supporting tribal self-determination and food sovereignty.  


[1]The Native Farm Bill Coalition works to ensure that the Farm Bill proposals reflect tribal priorities and addresses the critical food, nutrition and agricultural needs of Indian Country. For more information, visit https://seedsofnativehealth.org/native-farm-bill-coalition/.

[2]“638 authority” gives formal oversight over federal programs to tribal governments, and allows them to control how these programs operate on reservations.