Hunger can affect people from any background, but Native Americans have, historically, been far more likely to experience food insecurity. About one in 4 Native Americans is experiencing food insecurity, compared to 1 in 8 Americans overall. Native American families are 400% more likely to report being food insecure, in no small part because food and jobs are scarce in the communities where they live.
The food insecurity rate for majority-American Indian counties is greater than 20 percent, well above the national average of 15.1%. In fact, 60% of all counties that are majority Native American have a high food-insecurity rate despite making up less than 1% of all counties in the United States. For example, Apache County, Arizona which is home to the Navajo Nation, as well as the Zuni and Fort Apache tribes, has a nearly 30% food insecurity rate, the highest out of any majority-American Indian county in the United States.
A-Dae Romero-Briones, Director of Programs, Native Agriculture and Food Systems at the First Nations Development Institute, has insightful thoughts on the societal factors that cause such high rates of food insecurity among Native Americans.
“Historically, Tribal Nations have developed community ecosystems, and societies and cultivated those institutions with their environments, whether that be on the coasts or the deserts southwest,” she said. “With the onslaught of settlements and later reservation and federal policies, Tribal Nations were forced into other areas of unfamiliarity through the reservation system. This forced relocation remains an underlying issue as Tribal Nations today are trying to cultivate their lands, learn their environments and adjust to the abrupt transitions. Imagine a thousand-year-old society moved suddenly and now forced to re-build.”
The SNAP participation rate among Native households is 24%, which is nearly double that of the general population. The USDA’s Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations provides food to households based on the size of the family, but the food distributed through the program are often high in fats and carbohydrates and is grossly underfunded. In 2014, that program’s budget was only large enough to provide participants with less than $1 per meal.
“One of the major reasons that food insecurity has persisted over long periods of time is because of federal policies from the historical reservation policy to current federal policy, so one of the possible solutions to food insecurity is to allow Tribal communities to run their own feeding programs,” Romero-Briones says. “Currently, the federal government runs the SNAP programs, WIC programs, and other community-based feeding programs. While the federal government does grant these programs to State agencies, it does not do so for Tribal governments. Perhaps Tribal governments would be best able to serve and administer these feeding programs to address the specific needs of their communities.”
Many Native Americans still reside in protected reservations there is barely enough land to grow their own food or hunt. The federal government decided in 1890 that Native Americans weren’t allowed to leave their reservations to fish, hunt or being able to forage. The government instead sent the tribes large rations of sugar, fat, flour and other foods that were in no way healthy for them. With a total lack of assets to be able to combat hunger on the reservations, Native Americans continue to face extremely high rates of food insecurity.
A combination of high rates of food insecurity, poverty, and very little access to food with high nutritional value, has caused the quality of health among Native Americans to plummet. As of 2008, more than 20% of Native American children ages 2-5 were already obese. Native Americans are also 2.3x more likely to have diabetes compared to white Americans. The federal government tried to combat these high rates of diabetes by creating the Special Diabetes Program, unfortunately, the program hasn’t received any additional funding since 1997. Between 1994-2004, diabetes among Native American teenagers increased by 68%.
With these high rates of sickness, access to healthcare is sorely needed. The Indian Health Service agency (IHS) is the main provider of healthcare for Native Americans, covering 2.2 million in 35 states. However, the agency only has a budget of $4.6 billion which is not nearly enough to provide healthcare to all of the Native American population. As of 2017, 30% of Native Americans are unable to access quality healthcare, including the fact that half of the Native American population have low enough incomes to be able to afford Medicaid, even with the expansion under Obamacare.
At Move For Hunger, we believe that access to affordable, nutritious food is a right every American should enjoy. Please share this article on social media to spread the word about this significant issue. You can also check out our advocacy page to learn more how you can use your voice to help fight hunger.
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