Monday, June 02, 2014

SNAP Cuts, Food Sovereignty and Other Issues Affecting Tribal Communities in New Mexico (and Elsewhere)

2,085,287 That number on the left is the estimate from the U.S. Census Bureau for the entire population of New Mexico in 2013. That estimate was based on the data collected during the 2010 Census. The report also breaks down the population by ethnicity. According to the data, slightly more than 10% of the population was listed as American Indian or Alaska Native. And 2.4% or respondents listed themselves as belonging in the "two or more races" category.

I'd like to consider those statistics in light of a recent decision by Congress to cut funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program  (SNAP) by about $8.6 billion over 10 years.

While those cuts are not expected to affect New Mexico as directly as other states, other reductions in SNAP hurt residents in our state. Food stamp benefits were reduced for about 442,000 New Mexicans when the federal stimulus program ended last fall. And Congress is continuing to seek ways to cut these supports in the name of balancing the budget.

A handful of reports have measured the direct impact on tribal communities in our country, including an articule published in Indian Country newspaper in February. 

"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," said an article in Indian Country newspaper published in February 2014.  Read more in  How Will Farm Bill & Food Stamp Cuts Impact Indian Country?

2012 Report
Kids Count Report on New Mexico
One recent report from New Mexico Voices for Children provides useful information about the potential cuts in SNAP benefits for American Indian households in New Mexico.:

The number or percent of households that receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) support (formerly “food stamps”) is often used as an indicator of “food security”—a measure of the ability of a family or household to ensure access to essential nutrition for its members. It is also linked to levels of poverty. In New Mexico, which is considered a “poor” state, up to 10 percent of all households—and 16 percent of Native American households—receive SNAP benefits. 

This special Kids Count report, entitled Native American Children and Families in New Mexico:Strengths and Challenges, provides general data for our state as well as statistics/trends affecting the well-being of  each of the Pueblo, Apache and Navajo communities in New Mexico and American Indians residing in Albuquerque.

While the ability to access nutritious food on a consistent basis is a very important consideration to measure the well-being of any community, the Kids Count report also makes a couple of very important points regarding American Indian communities in New Mexico (and probably elsewhere in our country).
  • It should be noted that the criteria for child and family well-being used in this report come from the dominant white American culture. Some Native American people have differing criteria for “poverty,” for example. Poverty may be defined as a loss of traditional culture rather than earning a low income.
  • Unlike many tribes across the U.S. who were displaced from ancestral lands, most of the state’s tribes and pueblos have largely maintained or regained this important connection. Having a tangible tie to tradition and the land has a positive impact on community well-being in ways not measured in this report. 
Food Sovereignty
SNAP is only one of the ways in which the federal government helps the tribal communities in New Mexico and elsewhere. Another form of food assistance comes in the form of commodity distributions, and there is a sense of ambivalence in the reservations about this program.

2006 Report
While USDA commodity food distributions were much appreciated by participants in our focus groups, these distributions have a legacy and a history of taking food sovereignty away from Pueblos and First Nations," Farm to Table and The New Mexico Food and Agriculture Policy Council said in a 2006 report.

The report, entitled Closing New Mexico's Rural Food Gap, was based on interviews and focus groups in several rural settings around the state and funded by the Congressional Hunger Center.

The report, of course, looks at many other rural communities beyond the Pueblo, Navajo, and Apache reservations in New Mexico. Some conclusions based on interviews with focus groups in tribal communities could provide solutions on how to address rural food security beyond direct federal assistance. Below are a couple of important observations in the report.

 "Food sovereignty is helpful in thinking about how New Mexico communities can have the power over the food that is grown, sold, cooked, and eaten to improve nutrition and maintain heritage. First Nations Development Institute underscores that, 'the last 200 years of federal policy toward Native Americans has reduced their control of land, disrupted traditional agricultural practices, and dramatically changed diets.'

Food sovereignty is about reclaiming the community’s control over healthy food. The legacy of federal 'Indian Policy' makes food sovereignty particularly useful for Pueblos’ and First Nations’ work to reduce the food gap. However, food sovereignty is important for all New Mexico communities.

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