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Tribal survey captures deepening food insecurity in Indian Country that federal data has missed

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During the COVID-19 pandemic, empty grocery shelves have become a sometimes common sight.

Nearly half of Native Americans and Alaska Natives have struggled with food insecurity during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new report published by several Native-led groups.

The data highlights deep-rooted inequalities in Indian Country.

“As a result of systemic racism and conscious unmet obligations by the federal, state and local U.S. governments, community food deficits are a pervasive fact of life, persisting for centuries for American Indian and Alaska Native communities,” the report reads. “Traumatic events like pandemics amplify these circumstances.”

The report surveyed more than 500 tribal members across the nation and found 54% sometimes or often could not afford to eat balanced meals. Meanwhile, 48% frequently lacked an adequate amount of food to feed their families. And 37% reported that they or those in their household were forced to cut the size of meals they ate or skip them altogether during at least one month of the pandemic.

Survey responses contradict the federal government’s data on food insecurity during the pandemic, said Toni Stanger-McLaughlin, a citizen of the Colville Confederated Tribes and executive director of the Native American Agriculture Fund, which co-led the survey.

According to data released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in September 2021, “the 2020 prevalence of food insecurity was unchanged from 10.5 percent in 2019.”

USDA cited a social safety net that included “changes and additions to nutrition assistance programs, unemployment benefits, stimulus payments, and moratoriums on evictions” as potential factors in ostensibly preventing a spike in food insecurity rates.

The federal report found an increase in food insecurity among some groups, such as Black non-Hispanic households. But it did not specifically list data for Native Americans, an omission that reflects the larger problem of marginalization.

In absence of those numbers, the Indian Country survey marks “one of the first times that we are seeking out data directly from our communities,” Stanger-McLaughlin said.

“It will help effectuate change in our local communities, but also in Congress and through the administrations that oversee services or have oversight over Indian Country and that includes USDA, the Indian Health Service and the Department of Interior,” she added.

This data could inform key pieces of federal legislation, like the next farm bill that will go before Congress in 2023. Advocates want to see provisions that help foster Native food sovereignty and food security.

Stanger-McLaughlin said Native-led groups are best equipped to collect this kind of crucial information from their communities, particularly in the many remote swaths of tribal lands that stretch across the nation, where Indigenous inequities are especially pronounced.

“There's a gap between those that were receiving assistance from USDA and those that were just slightly above that income level. And that's where we saw a majority of our survey participants existing,” she said.

Stangler-McLaughlin points to supply chain issues as one reason food insecurity disproportionately affected tribal communities.

Many reservations are food deserts “and they're often the last mile that's not connected to technological services such as broadband,” she said. “So those communities were the last to receive access to new shipments of food, to be able to process and package the things that they had.”

Often, when those shipments finally arrived, food was spoiled, Stanger-McLaughlin said.

Still, the report also highlighted the resiliency of tribal nations that are actively working to address the problem.

“Native producers found ways to harvest, process, donate, and deliver food to their communities that would have otherwise gone to waste due to restaurant closures, processing plant shutdowns, and closed farmer markets,” the report reads. “In many instances, Native youth were gathered, trained, and put to work in the community food supply chains.”

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

I wear many hats in KUNC's newsroom as an executive producer, editor and reporter. My work focuses on inequality, the systems of power that entrench it, and the people who are disproportionately affected. I help reporters in my newsroom to also uncover these angles and elevate unheard voices in the process.