Friday, October 10, 2014

It's time to #FixFDPIR

Something is rotting in the state of FDPIR, and it’s cases of food.

Recently, an Indian Tribal Organization (ITO) for the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR) received a shipment of fruits and vegetables that were covered in mold. The pictures in this post portray part of the delivery of rotten oranges and peppers they received. Forced to return their entire shipment of green peppers, cauliflower, and oranges, as spoiled and unfit for human consumption, the clients they serve must go without—again. This is not the first shipment of spoiled food this ITO has received, and with a pattern of such poor service and no action by their Food & Nutrition Service (FNS) Regional Office, it is not likely to be the last, either.

These repeated shipments of bad produce would be bad enough on their own, but they come on the heels of a summer-long protein shortage in the FDPIR packages, a shortage that affected all FDPIR participants. The Mountain Plains programs were particularly slim on protein during the summer months, and while officials pointed to a nationwide beef shortage after an unexpectedly harsh winter, this protein shortage curiously seemed to affect only FDPIR, and not the other commodity food assistance programs also administered by USDA-FNS. The protein shortage follows months of shortages of most of the other foods in the food package; in some cases up to 30% of the foods in the package were unavailable for delivery and not on warehouse shelves managed by FNS.

FDPIR is intended to provide on-reservation support for low-income Tribal households who need access to a healthy supply of food. One hundred and thirteen ITO’s and state agencies administer the program for over 270 tribes and work with an average of 76,000 participants each month to order packages and maintain warehouses. One of the goals of FDPIR, as acknowledged by the National FDPIR Board, is to “improve the nutritional quality of the diets of participating individuals.” These repeated shipments of rotten produce directly contravene that goal, as does the complete failure of the program over the summer to provide participants with an acceptable variety of protein. A national supply of bison protein is available and moving to commercial markets around the country, yet including bison protein in the FDPIR food package has never made it out of the discussion stage with FNS—a discussion stage that has lasted now for at least four years.

This is not the first time Indian Country has received food from the United States government that is far less than adequate. The fraught history of the commodities diet, with mold-infested cheese and spoiled vegetables, is a not-too distant memory for many Tribes. For commodity feeding programs in Indian Country, it seems as though the past has unfortunately been prologue to the problems of the present.

We will not return to the days of green cheese and moldering milk. The problems in FDPIR are not the fault of the tribes; they are the responsibility of the federal government. The United States government as well as the companies delivering these food products have legal, contractual responsibilities to FDPIR participants to deliver food that is, at a bare minimum, safe for human consumption. Further, federal regulations surrounding the administration of FDPIR make clear that products that are spoiled and unfit for human consumption shall be replaced by the Department of Agriculture through FNS (7 CFR 250.13(f) and 250.13(g)).

If the USDA, through FNS, cannot carry out those responsibilities and fix the administrative problems on the federal level that leave warehouse shelves empty and force participants to go hungry, perhaps it is time for Indian Country to mobilize around this issue and lead Tribes into a new space that stands up local food production and distribution on a Tribal level. Moving to a SNAP system is not the answer: SNAP requires ready access to a vendor, i.e., a grocery store. That is an untenable solution for many people living on large reservations, where the nearest grocery store may require a 300 mile round trip. We can’t just throw a SNAP EBT card at the problem of hunger in Indian Country and expect good results, but we have lands and resources to build a robust system of local food production that feeds our people locally. Building that system will take time, but it is an important piece of our sovereignty.

How do we fix FDPIR? We see two choices: FNS must do the job the law requires, or FNS must instead support Indian Country as we begin to feed our own people. It won’t happen overnight, but the longer we wait, the more these intractable problems become the norm. No one should go hungry in Indian Country. This is unacceptable.

Do you have thoughts on how to #FixFDPIR? Tweet at us @IFAIUark with that hashtag.

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