Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) emergency allotments officially expired at the end of February for the remaining 32 states that had continued providing COVID-19-era supplemental benefits to qualifying residents. Now, millions of residents are expected to lose at least $95 a month in food budget assistance, with average monthly losses ranging between $151 and $213 per household. According to Indigenous advocates, the SNAP rollback will disproportionately impact Tribal communities, which are already food insecure as a result of settler-colonialism, land theft, and forced removal of Native nations that disrupted their native food systems. Experts from Tribal nations say prioritizing Native sovereignty over their food and agriculture is imperative.
“Someone in the household was having to choose to feed either seniors or children in the household and go without themselves,” said Toni Stanger-McLaughlin, a citizen of the Colville Confederated Tribes and CEO of the Native American Agriculture Fund (NAAF). “With this reduction, we’re going to see more families that are suffering.”
According to Stanger-McLaughlin, many Tribal reservations are considered “food deserts”—parts of the country that lack fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthy whole foods due to a lack of grocery stores, farmer’s markets, and healthy food providers. Even with access to a SNAP card, those living in food deserts had limited options compared to what others in urban cities would find at their grocery stores.
Stanger-McLaughlin says they want tribes to have the authority to administer programs like SNAP independently. NAAF also wants to create a regional food trade hub that will serve as a central point for aggregating food produced in a specific region. The hub would leverage the individual food and agriculture strengths of Tribal communities and provide stability for Tribal producers within their communities.
“We are trying to find solutions through more regional perspectives and solutions based on what will work for the communities and what is more reliably grown in those regions,” Stanger-McLaughlin said. “In the hierarchy structure of the federal government, tribes and states are equal, yet almost every federal program goes through the state, then to the tribe. It’s unfortunate. We hope that tribes can step into their full authority and have the funding go directly to them instead of the states.”
USDA data shows that more than 41 million Americans used SNAP benefits in 2022, a program that was expanded during the pandemic to give qualifying households more funds for groceries. In particular, SNAP provides benefits to 24% of Native American households, while 276 tribes and 100 inter-tribal organizations administer the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR). Overall, approximately 25% of Native Americans receive some type of federal food assistance; in some tribal communities, participation is as high as 60% to 80%.
According to a 2021 report from the Native American Agriculture Fund, the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), and the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative, COVID-19 only exacerbated food insecurity for Native communities. Forty-eight percent of Native people surveyed indicated that sometimes or often throughout the pandemic, the food their household bought didn’t last, and they didn’t have money to get more. Thirty-seven percent of individuals indicated that in at least one month during the pandemic, they or other adults in their household cut the size of meals or skipped meals because there wasn’t enough money for food. Respondents with children in their households also reported significantly higher food insecurity rates.
“We want to find the solutions to lessen the amount of money that goes externally for food production, food security, [and] food safety,” Stanger-McLaughlin said. “If we can localize it, it will save money, but will also protect ourselves against future pandemic issues or climate-related issues, because instead of traveling across the country or four states away, you’re standing within your region, maybe within your county.”
Stanger-McLaughlin believes regional food trade hubs should also be built within logical zone locations centered around Native regional land bases and the Tribal governments and communities in that region. These hub zones can support the aggregating, processing, distributing, and marketing of food and agriculture within that region to centralize support and coordination. Regional food hubs can also establish sub-hubs, creating greater interconnectivity between more localized food production between different producers within each region. The main obstacle is sovereignty and authority.
“Unfortunately, this ending of the SNAP is a cost shift; it’s a cost shift to states to counties, it’s a cost shift to the charitable sector, because there’s going to be more demand put on them,” said FRAC’s SNAP director Ellen Vollinger. “It’s really a cost shift to the individual SNAP household; they’re the ones that are going to have to try to figure out how to stretch it.”
One food assistance program, FDPIR, will continue to provide USDA-approved food to qualifying residents and offers a more accessible alternative to SNAP especially for households on rural reservations. Experts anticipate FDPIR participation will increase in the coming months, though the program faces its own challenges, such as limited resources, a lack of availability of culturally sensitive foods, and an inability to purchase food from Tribal farmers and producers, creating a barrier to food sovereignty.
“There’s [going to be] an immediate impact on FDPIR participation,” said Erin Parker, executive director of the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative (IFAI). “Even though sites do try to maintain between one and three months of inventory, when you have a large number of people potentially coming, that can destabilize existing inventory, and with some of the supply chain issues … I know there have been some concerns about more folks coming on when they want to be able to serve them in the best possible way. But just the realities and making sure you have the right amount of food, and also the right amount of staff, to be able to serve those individuals as they come back onto the program—that’s always a concern.”
As SNAP benefits expire, many local food banks are also scrambling to prepare for an anticipated spike in demand. According to Vollinger, many food banks say that, for every one meal they put out, SNAP has the potential to put out nine times the amount.
“The nonprofit emergency food providers, they’re already stretched thin to the point where if you’re a tribal member … one of the things you’ll be vying for now is longer lines at the food pantry,” said Vollinger. “The soup kitchen you might have been able to turn to it’s lengthening those lines. It’s exacerbating the problems.”
Sally Latimer, a member of the Monacan Indian Nation and co-director of the Monacan Indian Nation Food Bank, says they have not yet seen an impact in their food bank. They anticipate they will see at least a 20% to 25% increase in recipients within a month of SNAP benefits ending.
“We would hear from families that were regulars coming in saying, ‘hey, I just don’t need the extra help right now, our family has more than enough,’” Latimer said. “SNAP was allowing families to eat not only three meals a day, but they had more funding to provide healthier foods. SNAP benefits allowed so many families to not have to worry where they were going to get groceries from.”
Latimer has now allowed families to order their food pantry items online to empower them and ensure that whatever they receive is what they need and will use.
“It’s hard for people to come to food banks; it’s hard for them to ask for help, it’s hard for them to accept the help,” Latimer said. “By giving them the option, it gives them back that sense of not having to ask for whatever but ask for exactly what they need without having the stigma behind it.”
In Oregon, Buck Jones of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission says their food bank still includes foods that may not be culturally appropriate. In response, many community members have started their own community gardens to “take control and grow what they actually want.” The NAYA Family Center in Portland, for example, provides bags of fresh produce for Native community members and hosts garden volunteer days every Monday and Saturday to teach Native gardening techniques and encourage food sovereignty.
“We see that if we give people more opportunities to grow their own product, then it’ll help,” Jones said. “Being able to control what we have to give to our people so that it’s utilized is important.”