This week, the House Natural Resources Committee chaired by Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), and the House Rules Committee chaired by Rep. James P. McGovern (D-Mass.) is hosting a joint roundtable on an important issue: Food insecurity among Indigenous Peoples in the United States.
The roundtable, Ending Hunger in America: Indigenous Nutrition and Food Systems, is happening Friday, February 18 at 12:00 p.m. Eastern time and is being streamed online here. The recording will be available at the same link after the livestream has ended.
If you want to know more about this issue, we’ve broken it down to help explain why this is so important and why it’s (past) time for us to do something about it.
First thing’s first — what exactly is food insecurity?
We often don’t think of food insecurity and hunger as issues that affect us here in the United States. Yet there are around 38 million Americans experiencing food insecurity. That’s about one person out of every eight in this country.
To understand what food insecurity is, we can start with the technical definition: The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines it as a “household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food.”
Per usual, technical definitions are… dry. They don’t tell us what an issue really looks like or feels like. So, let’s go a bit beyond technical definitions… What does food insecurity feel like in the United States?
- It’s feeling worried that the food in your house will run out before you get money to buy more food.
- It’s eating smaller meals or skipping meals altogether because you don’t have enough money to buy more food.
- It’s not being able to eat a balanced meal — not because you don’t want to, but because you can’t afford to.
Families with especially high levels of food insecurity may go whole days without food and even begin to lose weight because there isn’t enough money for food.
It’s important to know that, although poverty and food insecurity often go hand in hand, they’re not exclusively tied together. Americans living above the poverty line may experience food insecurity due to a lack of grocery stores or other affordable food options, especially people living in very rural areas.
Is food insecurity an issue for Indigenous Peoples?
Unfortunately, yes. It’s an even bigger issue for Indigenous Peoples than the rest of the United States population.
As we already mentioned, food insecurity affects around one out of every eight Americans. But for Indigenous Peoples, food insecurity is an issue for one out of every four.
The numbers may be even higher in some places — a 2019 study found that 92% of households among tribes in northern California and southern Oregon suffered from food insecurity.
While poverty is a significant factor in food insecurity among Indigenous Peoples, the lack of good, affordable food options in Indian Country and Native Hawaiian communities is also a major player. In Navajo Nation, for example, there are only 13 grocery stores across the 17 million acres of the reservation. For reference, that’s an area almost the size of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont combined.
13 grocery stores: The Navajo Nation is a food desert
On the United States' largest Native American reservation, there are 13 full-service grocery stores. To many Americans…
A major reason for the lack of grocery stores is that the industry doesn’t see these tribal, rural, low-income areas as a good investment. Often, it costs the industry more to build, ship, and supply items to Indian Country.
For Native Hawaiians, the issue is complicated even further by the fact that the state of Hawaii relies almost entirely on imported food, which drives up the cost of food by at least 60% compared to the rest of the U.S.
In remote parts of Alaska, warmer temperatures caused by climate change affect subsistence foods, like the caribou herd, that Alaska Natives have relied upon for millennia. Further impacting food insecurity is the lack of infrastructure, which increases the shipping and supply costs to transport food to rural Alaska.
In Alaska's Remote Towns, Climate Change Is Already Leaving Many Hungry
There was a time when Sandra Gologergen's freezer never ran out. Packed with traditional Inuit foods like whale…
What kinds of problems does food insecurity cause?
Some of the problems associated with food insecurity go without saying, but we’ll say them anyway. Food insecurity causes considerable mental and emotional distress. Constantly wondering whether you have enough food to feed yourself or your children takes an emotional toll that many of us don’t even have to consider — not to mention the compounding effects of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic on our anxiety AND the availability of food.
Food insecurity also has detrimental effects on physical health, some of which you might not even expect. For example, children experiencing food insecurity are 1.4 times more likely to have asthma than other children. Other chronic health conditions linked to food insecurity include diabetes, kidney disease, cancer, coronary heart disease, stroke, and lung disease. Type 2 diabetes rates have increased 50% for Native American children in just over ten years.
And, of course, all of these health effects come with a cost. Recent data shows that healthcare costs attributable to diet-related diseases exceed $600 billion annually. Indigenous Peoples who are bearing a disproportionate brunt of food insecurity are shouldering a disproportionate amount of the cost as well.
What can we do about food insecurity among Indigenous Peoples?
Fortunately, there are federal programs out there that are dedicated to bringing food to homes and communities with higher poverty levels. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is the most well-known. Free school lunch programs are also critical for children in Indigenous communities.
Another program that helps Native Americans specifically is the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR). This program purchases and ships healthful foods to tribal organizations and state governments.
While these programs are helpful, only 30% percent of tribal citizens who live on or near tribal lands are within a mile of SNAP-authorized supermarkets or FDPIR outlets — that’s about half of the national average.
Further complicating food insecurity is the inequities caused by creating and funding grants for state agencies, not tribal governments. Ideally, tribal governments would be afforded the resources to administer community-based food programs.
One path forward is through the Indigenous Food Sovereignty Initiative. Indigenous communities can regain control of their land and health by gaining the right, resources, and responsibility to produce healthy and culturally appropriate foods using traditional practices.
Thankfully, many dedicated people in Indigenous communities are making a lot of headway toward food security and food sovereignty. Efforts like these will be highlighted and discussed at this week’s roundtable. Again, you can watch that here.
What is the Natural Resources Committee doing to respond to the issue?
This week’s joint roundtable with the Natural Resources Committee and Rules Committee is an important first step. At the roundtable, we will hear directly from Indigenous communities and other experts about how food insecurity affects their lives, and we welcome comments from others who are watching as well. This is also an opportunity to learn about the innovative programs and initiatives in Indigenous communities throughout the United States.
But this is only the beginning. Chair Grijalva, Chair McGovern, and their fellow House Committee chairs have also called on President Biden to convene a national White House conference on food, nutrition, hunger, and health. The conference would bring together food banks, hospitals, government agencies, nonprofits, educators, farmers and ranchers, people with lived experiences, and more. Together, these leaders would put a concrete whole-of-government plan with real, meaningful benchmarks for ending hunger, reducing nutrition insecurity, and improving wellbeing.
No matter what, the Natural Resources Committee will keep moving forward on this issue and fighting for Indigenous Peoples to have a seat at the head of the table when decisions are being made. We know that the best solutions for addressing food insecurity issues among Indigenous Peoples are designed by Indigenous Peoples themselves.
For more information on the Committee’s work with Indigenous Peoples, please visit Natural Resources Democrats’ website here.