Developing and Implementing a National Strategy on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health
In September 2022, the Biden-Harris Administration will host the second White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health, more than fifty years after the first iteration under President Richard M. Nixon. The last Conference on Food, Nutrition, and Health resulted in 1,800 recommendations and led to significant changes to the 1973 Farm Bill. The Conference serves an opportunity to ensure Indian Country’s food, nutrition, and health priorities are included in the next Farm Bill and other legislation packages addressing these issues.
The recent report titled “Reimagining Hunger Responses in Times of Crisis,” published by the Native American Agriculture Fund (NAAF), the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative (IFAI), and the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), found far too many Native American households experience food insecurity and food access challenges. Nearly 50 percent of all American/Indian and Alaskan Native (AI/AN) respondents surveyed for the NAAF report indicated that they experienced food insecurity at the height of the coronavirus pandemic.1 According to the 2020 USDA Household Food Security Report, 10.5 percent of U.S. households experienced food insecurity during 2020.2 Food insecurity and the lack of access to traditional and healthy foods have a profoundly negative impact on Native communities.
Ahead of the 2023 Farm Bill, the Conference is an important opportunity for Tribal Nations and organizations to give a unified voice to the barriers that Native Americans experience in terms of hunger, nutrition, and health. It also presents an opportunity for Indian Country to highlight and expand on progress made around Native food systems, programs, and policies. Specifically, it demonstrates the important role that food sovereignty plays in improving the future for Native Americans.
For too long, health and nutrition inequities impacting Native Americans continue, with no end in sight. Indian Country’s participation in this White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health is key to overcoming inequities and creating healthier, happier communities.
The Native Farm Bill Coalition (NFBC) brings together the voices of Tribes, intertribal organizations, other Native organizations and non-Native allies around the country to advocate with a strong, unified voice in Washington, D.C., to advance investments in Native agricultural production, rural infrastructure, economic development, conservation, and forestry. The NFBC is the largest-ever coordinated effort in Indian County around federal food, agriculture, and nutrition policy. Since the Coalition’s launch in 2017, the NFBC has grown to include more than 270 Tribal Nations, intertribal organizations, and non-Native ally organizations.
What is the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health?
Congress developed the Conference as a result of bipartisan legislation introduced by U.S. Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Mike Braun (R-IN) and U.S. Representatives James P. McGovern (D-MA) and Jackie Walorski (R-IN). The September 2022 Conference is only the second such Conference the federal government has ever held, with the first hosted by the Nixon White House in December 1969.
The 2022 Conference is expected to launch a national plan not only to end hunger but also to increase meaningful access to healthy food choices and physical activity for all Americans in an effort to reduce nutrition-related diseases, like Type II Diabetes and heart disease. The report from that first conference contained over 1,800 recommendations for improvements to federal food and nutrition policy, and in many ways, it led directly to significant changes in the 1973 Farm Bill. Those changes included significant expansion of the Food Stamp Program (now called SNAP – Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and the establishment of the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR). These programs continue to provide food security support for Native people across Indian Country today.
Why does it matter to Indian Country?
Indian Country is deeply aware of the critical linkage between access to healthy food and the health of people and communities; that linkage has been part of Indigenous lifeways from time immemorial. Indian Country is also deeply aware of the devastating impacts that colonization continues to have on Native food systems and health. Food insecurity across Native households remains too high. Over 25 percent of all American Indian and Alaska Native people across the country rely on SNAP each month, and more than 80,000 Native households a month rely on FDPIR. The pandemic exacerbated these pre-existing disparities and food insecurity at rates well above what non-Native households were experiencing at the same time.
Tribal Nations have been investing in the systems, policies, and programs that will re-center Native health and wellbeing, restore Native food systems, and promote thriving Tribal communities for current and future generations. Innovation in food systems and nutrition has long been part of Native lifeways. A large number of the healthy foods discussed at a Conference like this have their roots in Tribal communities — foods such as wild rice, salmon, walleye, and tepary beans. Many of these are now promoted in Western medicine for their extraordinary health benefits. This was hardly news to Native Americans who have relied on and cared for these foods for thousands of years.
The White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health is an important opportunity for Tribal Nations and Native-led organizations to promote traditional principles of nutrition and health, while bringing contemporary Indigenous perspectives to federal nutrition law and policy. When Tribal Nations have a strong voice in processes like this one, Tribally-led change can lead to great outcomes. For example, when Tribal communities were included in 2018 Farm Bill negotiations, their advocacy led to the inclusion of increased fresh fruits and vegetables; traditional foods available through programs like FDPIR; and Tribally-procured and produced healthy foods in USDA’s grant and loan programs. The same kind of strong Tribal voices in this White House Conference can help shape federal policy for decades to come.
What is the White House Seeking?
White House officials about the Conference. It also represents a critical pathway for Native perspectives to be incorporated into both the Conference and the official reports that will come from it. These will contribute to future federal nutrition law and policy, which deeply impact Indian Country and Tribal citizens.
Specifically, the White House has released five “pillars” on which they are seeking dialogue during this consultation:
- Improve food access and affordability: End hunger by making it easier for everyone — including urban, suburban, rural, and tribal communities — to access and afford food. For example, expand eligibility for and increase participation in food assistance programs and improve transportation to places where food is available.
- Integrate nutrition and health: Prioritize the role of nutrition and food security in overall health, including disease prevention and management, and ensure our health care system addresses the nutrition-related needs of all people.
- Empower all consumers to make and have access to healthy choices: Foster environments that enable all people to easily make informed healthy choices, increase access to healthy food, encourage healthy workplace and school policies, and invest in public messaging and education campaigns that are culturally appropriate and resonate with specific communities.\
- Support physical activity for all: Make it easier for people to be more physically active in part by ensuring everyone has access to safe places to get active, increase awareness of the benefits of physical activity, and conduct research on and measure physical activity.
- Enhance nutrition and food security research: Improve nutrition metrics, data collection, and research to inform nutrition and food security policy, particularly on issues of equity, access, and disparities.
The rest of this briefing document is designed to provide Tribal leaders, staff, and proxies with relevant background information on each of these pillars, along with suggested talking points from the Native Farm Bill Coalition (NFBC).
PILLAR 1 Improving Food Access and Affordability for Tribal Communities
Under this pillar, the White House is seeking dialogue around methods to expand Tribal citizens’ eligibility for and participation in food assistance programs, like FDPIR, SNAP, WIC, etc.
Improve credit access for Native food producers so they can grow, raise, and market food products closer to home
Although Indian Country’s 80,000+ food producers grow, raise, and harvest over $3.5 billion in agricultural products across 59 million acres of land, most of those food products are marketed and sold outside of Tribal communities. This is a complex issue, but at least part of this is driven by credit access issues for Native producers.
Indian Country is considered a credit desert, with redlining — discriminatory investment/divestment — still an issue confronting Native producers. Few private lenders take on the heavy workload to use trust land as collateral. Federal lending is also a challenge due to requirements like credit denial letters and mandatory graduation from federal lending programs, both of which keep Tribal producers from accessing credit on fair terms.
High interest credit puts more Tribal producers in deeper states of debt than the average producer, and there are fewer market opportunities in their immediate communities to sell food products. This pushes Native-produced food outside of Tribal communities, ensuring that Tribal citizens will not have access to the nutrition or economic return the foods represent.
Partnership with Native Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) who can provide agriculture lending at fairer terms to Native producers who want to grow and sell food closer to home would be transformative long-term for food access in Indian Country.
Remove barriers that prevent full Tribal government investment in food systems
When Tribal governments are able to fully exercise their sovereignty in the space of food systems, Tribal food systems thrive. Removing federal regulatory barriers that prevent the full and robust exercise of Tribal sovereignty over Tribal lands and food systems will set the stage for improved food access.
Support changes in the 2023 Farm Bill that would accomplish the goals of this pillar
Although Congress would need to make any of the following in the 2023 Farm Bill, the White House can provide support for all these provisions and direct USDA to implement them swiftly if they are passed into law.
- Support Tribal administration and/or “638” contracting/compacting of all food
- assistance programs, which aligns with USDA’s Equity Action Plan;
- Expand the 2018 Farm Bill’s “638” self-determination contracting procurement authority for FDPIR, enabling more Tribes to source food directly for FDPIR;
- Remove the ban on Tribal citizens’ dual use of SNAP and FDPIR in the same month;
- Apply the Buy Indian Act to USDA, creating set-aside procurement contracts for Indian-owned and controlled food businesses to sell foods to USDA, which also aligns with USDA’s Equity Action Plan;
- Create a dedicated cooperative agreement authority in the Farm Bill, enabling the Secretary and the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) to enter into cooperative agreements with Tribal Nations to procure Tribally-produced foods for USDA food and nutrition programs.
Support changes in Child Nutrition Reauthorization legislation that would accomplish the goals of this pillar
- Add Tribes as eligible entities to administer all Child Nutrition programs, including National School Lunch/Breakfast, Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), Summer Food Service, and more. Currently, Tribes are only eligible to administer the WIC program, but none of the other vital Child Nutrition food assistance programs.
PILLAR 2 Integrating Native-Led Nutrition Programming to Improve Native Health
USDA-FNS should partner with Tribal Nations through cooperative agreements to launch more Native-led nutrition education programming throughout Indian Country
- Tribal Nations are best situated to provide culturally-appropriate nutrition education programming to their citizens. Individual Tribal Nations, through various programs, frequently interact face-to-face with their members. Existing trust between Tribes and their citizens is a foundation for information sharing federal and state entities lack. In addition, Tribal Nations are able to contextualize nutrition education within the traditional knowledge and cultural practices of their people.
- USDA-FNS can amplify their nutrition education efforts by empowering Tribal Nations through cooperative agreements to tailor nutrition education efforts to the specific culture, circumstances, and needs of their communities.
Support changes in the 2023 Farm Bill that would accomplish the goals of this pillar
Although Congress would need to act in the 2023 Farm Bill to make any of the following changes, the White House can provide support for all these provisions and direct USDA to implement them swiftly if they are passed into law.
Ensure Tribal Eligibility for SNAP-Ed Funding.
- Tribal governments are not currently eligible to directly access SNAP-Ed funds, which provide a significant source of nutrition education funding to state agencies. While states are legally required to consult with Tribal Nations in their service areas in developing their annual SNAP-Ed plans, these consultations do not always happen. Often, Tribal citizens are left out of valuable nutrition education opportunities.
- Direct access to these funds would vastly improve vital nutrition education programming. As stated above, Tribal Nations are better situated to provide culturally-appropriate nutrition education programming to their citizens. However, without access to funding, Tribes are limited in doing so.
PILLAR 3 EMPOWERING TRIBAL CONSUMERS TO HAVE ACCESS TO HEALTHY CHOICES
Recognize a legal right to traditional and culturally significant foods for Tribal citizens
For the first time since their initial development in the 1980s, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans include specific provisions supporting culturally-appropriate food access.
- Congress and the White House can take this a step further. By acknowledging a legal right to these foods and shifting nutrition policies promoting Tribal-led production of them, the government would be upholding its federal trust responsibilities.
- Giving voice to this right in federal nutrition law and policy could include priority sourcing for these staples in federal food assistance programs serving Native households; incentive programs for Tribal consumers on Tribal lands purchasing traditional/culturally-appropriate foods; regionalizing traditional food sourcing in programs like FDPIR to fully respect the history and origins of each of those foods; and more.
- Ensure a Tribal voice/representative is included in the 2025 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee.
Support infrastructure development on Tribal lands that encourages healthy choices now
- Tribal communities disproportionately lag behind all American communities in critical infrastructure needs that support healthy food access. Under investment in electrical, water, sewer, travel and broadband infrastructure negatively impact Native people from accessing healthy foods.
Apply 638 to all food and nutrition programs, which aligns with USDA’s Equity Action Plan
- Within this pillar, the White House is prioritizing the creation of environments that enable people to easily make informed healthy choices and increase access to healthy food with a specific eye toward what is culturally appropriate and will resonate with specific communities. Creating environments that empower Tribes and their citizens with culturally-specific practices is just one of may benefits of Tribal 638 authority.
- Creating authority for Tribes to take over these federal food and nutrition assistance programs will improve efficiency, reduce regulatory burdens, and support Tribal self-governance and self-determination. It also allows Tribes to tailor these programs to the specific needs of their communities at the local level.
- A significant portion of Tribes have conveyed interest in administering federal nutrition assistance programs as an expression of sovereignty while providing direct service to their citizens. Flexibility in management of nutritional foods alongside culturally-appropriate services are critical to creating a healthier environment for their citizens.
PILLAR 4 SUPPORTING PHYSICAL ACTIVITY FOR ALL
The White House is seeking feedback on how to ensure that people have access to safe spaces to get active.
Increase support for Native agriculture, especially beginning farmers and ranchers
- Agriculture and land stewardship activities are great ways to be active while also feeding communities, and for thousands of years that solid foundation of good relationships with our food systems kept Native American peoples thriving and healthy on this continent.
- Restoring connections between Native youth and food systems, when done in an Indigenous-led framework, provides opportunities for healthy movement, reconnects Native youth with culture and language around Native foodways, and improves food access for everyone in a Tribal community.
Transfer lands back to Tribal Nations
- Between 1887 and 1934, the federal government took more than 90 million acres from Tribal Nations without compensation. In seizing this land, the federal government cut off Tribal access, and with it, also ended a substantial part of the healthy physical activity that had supported Native Americans for thousands of years.
- The historical, religious, spiritual, cultural, and traditional connections of Native Tribes to these lands have not been extinguished, despite changes in ownership. However, the ability of Tribes to access, steward, and care for these places — all of which involves substantial healthy physical activity — has been severely undermined or erased completely.
- Since 1934, only about 8 percent of the 90 million acres seized has been reaquired in trust status. By transferring land back to Tribal Nations, the federal government empowers them to once again govern spaces where citizens are safe to explore, reconnect with the land, harvest traditional healthy foods, and carry out cultural practices.
PILLAR 5 ENHANCING TRIBAL NUTRITION AND FOOD SECURITY RESEARCH
Enhancing Tribal Nutrition and Food Security Research
USDA and HHS must intentionally include Native representatives on the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee
- The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) jointly publish the Dietary Guidelines for Americans every five years. These Guidelines provide evidence-based food and beverage recommendations and aim to promote health and prevent chronic disease. The Dietary Guidelines have a significant impact on nutrition in the United States because it forms the basis of federal nutrition policy and programs.
The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee plays a large role in creating these guidelines. There is no Native representation on this committee. Indian Country is not a monolith. Each Tribal community has its own specific, often unique characteristics. This includes dietary needs. If Natives do not play a role in creating these guidelines, the committee will miss the specific needs of those in Indian Country. The inclusion of Native perspectives on these guidelines, which shape many nutrition programs in Indian Country, increases the likelihood that they reflect the actual needs of the communities these programs are built to serve.
Ensure disaggregation of all federal datasets in all places allowable by law, so that Native people are not invisible
- In federal datasets, Native peoples are frequently omitted entirely or declared ‘Other.’ The Biden Administration has publicly recognized this significant shortfall.
- This makes it difficult if not impossible to track any health or food access interventions for Native households in a way that Western institutions will understand.
- For example, the Pulse data collected by the Census Bureau on household food insecurity during the pandemic was not disaggregated, leaving no way to track the rise of food insecurity among Native households. Native organizations had to undertake an entirely separate process to conduct a Tribal-specific survey just to make sure Indian Country was seen and Tribal citizens’ needs were met.
- The Biden Administration should follow through on the promise made during the first 100 days in office and disaggregate federal datasets so that Native people are no longer invisible in these critical resources.
The United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) should create set-asides in all current funding sources to support Native American scholars conducting nutrition and food security research.
- American Indians and Alaska Natives are underrepresented in many major data collection efforts and statistical analyses. This makes it difficult to craft policy solutions and social programs that effectively target and benefit Native communities. Historically, many ‘research’ projects conducted by outsiders in Indian Country have not benefited and have even inflicted harm on Tribal communities.3
- Native American scholars are best positioned to carry out research in Tribal communities. When entering these spaces, it is crucial to understand local perspectives and engage with the Tribal community. By creating set-asides to fund research done by Native scholars, HHS can help to fill this gap in Tribal-specific data and do so in a way that is respectful of Tribal communities.
AI/AN: American Indian/Alaska Native
CDFI: Community Development Financial Institution
FDPIR: Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations
FOOD SOVEREIGNTY: Right to healthy and culturally-appropriate food and Tribal authority to define food and agriculture systems.
HHS: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
NFBC: Native Farm Bill Coalition
NATIVE/TRIBAL PRODUCER: A Native/Tribal food producer is a Tribal citizen that may raise livestock, farm, grow fruits and vegetables, or sell edible agricultural-based products — such as maple syrup, honey, dried tea leaves, etc — directly to consumers, retailers, institutions, or intermediate markets.
SNAP: Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program
USDA: U.S. Department of Agriculture
USDA-FNS: U.S. Department of Agriculture – Food and Nutrition Services
WIC: Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Woman, Infants, and Children
1 NAAF – Reimagining Hunger Responses in Times of Crisis – https://nativeamericanagriculturefund.org/ wp-content/uploads/2018/04/Reimagining-Hunger-Responses-in-Times-of-Crisis.pdf
2 USDA Household Food Security Report – https://www.ers.usda.gov/webdocs/publications/102076/err- 298.pdf?v=7786
3 NCAI, Research That Benefits Native People: A Guide for Tribal Leaders – https://www.ncai.org/policy-research-center/research-data/NCAIModule1.pdf