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Minnesota tribal leaders seek more funding for healthy food for the poor

WASHINGTON — Minnesotatribal leaders are pushing lawmakers in Washington for more money to bring healthy foods to reservations.

WASHINGTON — Within a 90-mile radius in northwest Minnesota, there are nearly 550 Native Americans who rely on one distribution center for the Leech Lake tribe for their groceries. 

This lengthy commute is not only inconvenient under good weather conditions but can be nearly impossible during the grueling Minnesota winters for the poor and elderly who don’t have a car. 

“The furthest reservation is 90 miles from the warehouse so it’s pretty hard for people to get to us,” said Susie Roy, director of food distribution for the Leech Lake tribe of Ojibwe. “I’ve been wanting to do a regular truck drop-off and go into communities that don’t have access to our store.”

The Leech Lake store and others like it across the country are funded and supplied by the federal Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR). These stores provide “commodity foods to low-income households” living on reservations.

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Native Americans make up about 1.2 percent of Minnesota’s population, according to the 2008 U.S. Census report, and their communities can go widely unnoticed, both outside the reservation and in Washington.  

That’s why tribal leaders are now pushing lawmakers to increase funding and continue to improve federal programs as part of future legislation and budgets for the next fiscal year. 

The Leech Lake distribution center receives about $295,000 each year, with 75 percent of those funds coming from the federal government and the remainder contributed by the tribe.

Roy said any increases would be helpful. “I would say we need about another $140,000 [per year], and that would be just to upgrade machinery in the building,” Roy said. 

Roy said that the tribe received a little more than $100,000 from the federal stimulus package, and the funds went to updating the facilities and other projects that had been overlooked in years past.

Many who quality for FDPIR food packages are also eligible for food stamps as part of the  Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Food stamps are given proportionally based on individual’s income, while those who qualify for FDPIR receive all food free of charge.

SNAP allows enrollees to choose the food items they want to purchase at their local grocery store.  FDPIR has warehouses where enrollees must go to pick up their food packages. Despite making strides over the past few years to improve the nutritional value and variety of food choices, participants in the FDPIR program select from limited options at the warehouse.

Health concerns

While food stamps may be easier for the consumer to use, the foods consumed by its enrollees tend to be less healthy, and advocates say that’s a particular concern on reservations.

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Among the 1.4 million U.S. citizens who identify themselves as Native American, the leading cause of death is cardiovascular disease. Diabetes is also far more likely on reservations, where health and nutrition concerns have become a major focus at food distribution centers.

Sen. Al Franken has spearheaded diabetes-prevention legislation and secured more than  $500,000 for diabetes programs for Indian tribes.

“The severity of the diabetes epidemic in the Native American community cannot be overstated,” said Franken. “The death rate from diabetes for American Indians is three times higher than that of the general public and it is crucial that we address this issue. These programs are the best defense against diabetes and they will save lives.”

Gloria Goodwin, director of distribution for the White Earth tribe in Minnesota, said one problem with the SNAP program is that enrollees have the freedom to choose what foods to purchase at the grocery store, and all too often they buy “chips, pizza, pop, candy.”

So White Earth has committed to the FDPIR program in an effort to increase its tribe’s health.

But a lack of funding poses hurdles for obtaining necessary equipment for the White Earth food warehouse, such as trucks for deliveries. Other concerns are high utility costs during winter and a lack of money for nutrition education.

“We’re trying to teach the younger families how to feed their families and what is healthy,” Roy said. 

The FDPIR food program has improved its nutritional value over the past few years, according to distributors for the Indian reservations and federal regulators.

“It is no longer a surplus food program,” said Kevin Concannon, USDA under secretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, who testified at a House Agriculture subcommittee hearing on the issue last week. “The food has remarkably improved with less salt in the canned vegetables, fresh produce.”

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But in the contest between healthy and convenient, convenient is winning. Not just in northern Minnesota, but nationwide.

“The SNAP benefits have increased a lot,” Goodwin said. “There has been a lot of decrease in our program, and it is a national trend.”

Lauren Knobbe is an intern in MinnPost’s D.C. bureau.