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“Many tribal communities are food deserts and SNAP cuts will only double the hardship some face to get access to food.”

How Will Farm Bill & Food Stamp Cuts Impact Indian Country?

Rob Capriccioso

When the federal government shut down last fall, it wasn’t just monuments and national parks that closed as a result. Funding streams for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) were also reduced, and, in turn, Indian programs meant to feed hungry families were stretched thin.

“It was a canary in the coal mine for what we’re going to see next,” says Janie Simms Hipp, director of the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative at the University of Arkansas School of Law, who predicts that the new cuts by Congress to SNAP will be difficult for many Native American families to bear.

On February 4, the Senate passed a farm bill by a vote of 68 – 32 that calls for $8 billion in cuts to the SNAP food-stamp program over the next decade; the Senate vote followed a 251-166 affirmative vote on the same bill in the House January 29. It’s a smaller cut than the $40 billion House Republicans passed last September, but still big enough to have Indian food and nutrition specialists worried about the net result.

RELATED: House Approves $40 Billion Cut to Food Stamps Over 10 Years

According to federal statistics, SNAP in 2008 served an average of 540,000 low-income people who identified as American Indian/Alaska Native alone and 260,000 who identified as American Indian/Alaska Native and White per month. The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) says that 20 percent of American Indian/Alaska Native households receive food stamps.

Tod Robertson, president of the National Association of Food Distribution Programs on Indian Reservations (FDPIR), says that the reduced federal funding resulting from the October shutdown, combined with new federal rules affecting FDPIR that went into effect around the same time, led to an increase in participation at nearly every tribal FDPIR site. FDPIR is a federal program that provides U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) foods through tribes to low-income Indian country-based households; it served approximately 80,000 individuals per month in fiscal year 2011, according to administrative data. Over 275 tribes currently participate in FDPIR, but there are 566 federally recognized tribes, so many tribal citizens don’t have access.

“One tribe has already seen an additional 1,000 plus new participants,” Robertson says. “The monthly participation levels are being closely monitored in comparison to past trends.”

If the immediate past is prologue, Robertson says it is “extremely plausible that additional resources will be needed” for FDPIR as a result of the SNAP cuts, which are expected to soon be signed into law by President Barack Obama.
The hope of many tribal advocates is that the FDPIR program can pick up the slack for most Indian families, but whether there are enough resources for that to happen is unknown right now.

“We’re going to see a ripple,” says Hipp, who founded the USDA’s Office of Tribal Relations before joining the University of Arkansas in 2013. “If you take the lesson of the shutdown as an example of what could happen upon full implantation of cuts to SNAP, we (tribes and tribal citizens) really need to be prepared.”

On another worrisome note beyond food stamps, tribal leaders with the Cheyenne-Arapaho Tribes are lamenting that the farm bill includes language inserted by Rep. Frank Lewis (R-Oklahoma) that continues to keep traditional tribal homelands away from the tribe. The tribe unsuccessfully called on Congress to remove the language, which was first inserted in 2002, once more in 2008, and now again in 2014.

Alongside the negatives, there are a few new provisions in the farm bill that are cause for celebration in Indian country. One of these provisions requires


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