Native American Food Insecurity: Food Initiatives on Reservations and Beyond

Food sovereignty, like “community food security,” is that state of being in which “all community residents obtain a safe, culturally acceptable, nutritionally adequate diet through a sustainable food system that maximizes community self-reliance and social justice.”

-Drs. Michael W. Hamm and Anne C. Bellows

Before the 15th century, when European settlers arrived, Native Americans had a diverse and complex food system that had been perfected over thousands of years. They cultivated crops like squash, corn, beans, turnips, and had advanced food preservation techniques for meat. During the revolutionary war, American soldiers were instructed to burn Native American villages, destroying their crops, soil, and homes. Soon after, the Indian Removal Act extracted hundreds of thousands of Native Americans from their land and relocated them to controlled territories where they were stripped of all their traditions. Just thirty years later, the United States Government hunted, to near extinction, an estimated 31 million buffalo, which were a staple in Native American food systems and life.

The historical context for the life threatening issues that Native Americans face is paramount in grasping the present state of food insecurity on reservations. The current conditions for Native Americans directly stem from these U.S. policies and the dehumanizing action taken against Native Americans people throughout the U.S.’s history. Consequently, Native American’s face countless hurdles in their daily lives. In addition to poverty, mass incarceration, and alcoholism, they encounter a number of food-related plights that affect reservation livelihood.

The forced abandonment of traditional Native American food has had a lasting affect on indigenous communities. The only accessible food on many reservations is limited to processed, packaged sustenance with little or no nutritional value. “Isolation and economic disparity force people to consume cheaper, more accessible, yet unhealthy foods.”

Gilbert Livingston Wilson, Ph.D., Agriculture of The Hidatsa Indians: An Indian Interpretation, Studies in Social Sciences, Number 9, Bulletin of the University of Minnesota, Nov. 1917.

Image: Maxi’diwiac (Buffalo Bird Woman) (ca.1839-1932) of the Hidatsa Indian Tribe, “Hoeing Squash with a Bone Hoe.” Source: Agriculture of The Hidatsa Indians: An Indian Interpretation, Studies in Social Sciences, Number 9, Bulletin of the University of Minnesota, Nov. 1912.

In efforts to help battle some of these problems, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) implemented the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR). The FDPIR was created in 1977 as an explicit alternative to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) for income-eligible families. Every month, a registered family receives a package of USDA food, instead of SNAP benefits.   When the program was created, members of Congress were concerned about the distances to grocery stores and SNAP offices from reservations, so implementing FDPIR seemed to be a viable solution to this problem. Although FDPIR theoretically alleviates some food accessibility issues on reservations, there are still a number of concerns that the U.S. Government has not addressed.

Since FDPIR’s inception, the program has only distributed mainstream American foods, which have little if any, cultural relevance to Native Americans. Consequently, many tribal diets have changed and now include high-fat foods in contrast to their traditional high-fiber, complex-carbohydrate diets. A monthly FDPIR package is likely to include: frozen meat, canned vegetables, pasta, egg mix, evaporated milk, crackers, dehydrated potatoes, juices, and peanut butter. Fresh fruits and vegetables are only available upon request on some reservations. Over the past 39 years, since the start of this program, obesity, diabetes, and heart disease has risen within Native American communities.

After tribal representatives tirelessly lobbied government officials, bison meat was introduced into the program. Following a bison buying frenzy in the 1990s, the bison population has grown. In 1885, there were nearly 500 remaining bison after the U.S. Government’s attempted extinction and today there are roughly 500,000. Before the mass slaughtering of millions of bison between 1868 and 1881, the animal was a major part of Native Americans’ diets. Though introducing bison into the FDPIR is certainly a step in the right direction, the USDA and the country have a long way to go before food insecurity on reservations can be alleviated.

Some Native Americans have decided to take back control and work toward reintroducing sustainable food on reservations to preserve their culture and decrease disease.

Meet Chef Sean Sherman of the Oglala Lakota tribe.

Over the past 27 years, Chef Sherman’s main focus has been “revitalizing indigenous food systems in a modern culinary context.” In 2014, Chef Sherman started a catering business called “The Sioux Chef,” where he also serves as a food educator in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Shortly after, in 2015, Chef Sherman partnered with Little Earth Community of United Tribes in Minneapolis to run a food truck– Tatanka Truck

Credit: SAVURMAG Twitter

Credit: SAVURMAG Twitter

Chef Sherman speaks about and advocates for “pre-reservation” indigenous food that Native Americans prepared before European colonization. The Pine Ridge Reservation born chef offers cooking classes and food demonstrations with the goal of educating the young generation in traditional, healthy, and sustainable Native American food.  Chef Sherman will often cater tribal events on reservations, much like the feast he prepared for the Chippewa on the Bois Forte Reservation in Minnesota. Like many reservations, Bois Forte is very isolated. With the closest market located 34 miles away and the nearest grocery store 62 miles away, Bois Forte is a food desert. Chef Sherman visits reservations, caters events, and shares how tribal members can help reclaim their heritage and their health.

The Sioux Chef’s website is also a valuable source for reservations looking to use their natural resources and get back to making “pre-contact” foods. There people can find charts (like the one below) explaining the foundations of indigenous foods systems, historical images of Native Americans cultivating crops, and pictures of the his team’s creations.

Credit: The Sioux Chef

Credit: The Sioux Chef

Tools likes these, are a step in the right direction for understanding how to create sustainable food systems on reservations and in Native American communities all over the country.


Post by Jessica A. Bibby – Research Fellow