Melissa Waitner in Native Condition. Discussion »
Melissa Waitner - Odawa
Throughout Indian Country, American Indian tribes operate Food Commodity Programs to income eligible families. Much like other federal assistance programs, our people have to prove enrollment status and meet income eligibility requirements. Each tribe that implements the USDA Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservation (FDPIR) program has a specific service area.
Some tribes serve their entire reservations; some in part and others counties within the state their tribe is based. Regardless of service area, the USDA has policy that bars American Indians from receiving the benefits of food commodities if they live in an area with a population of 10,000 or more.
At this writing tribal representatives from Food Commodity Programs from far and wide will converge upon Catoosa, Oklahoma to attend the annual USDA Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservation national conference.
This national conference provides training, federal updates and opportunities and allows tribes with the opportunity to let the USDA know what we need them to improve on and how to request program expansion and increased federal funding support.
Of significant importance this year is the fact that we have raised a very serious issue with what we feel is an eligibility barrier for American Indians. For example, the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians Commodities Program serves 13 Michigan counties including Benzie, Grand Traverse, Lake, Leelanau, Manistee, Mecosta, Muskegon, Mason, Newaygo, Oceana, Osceola, Ottawa and Wexford to income eligible American Indian families.
However, if a citizen resides in a city or town with a population of 10,000 or more, they cannot receive food from our commodities program.
Sadly, that means that most all of our income eligible citizens who live in Muskegon County, home of the city of Muskegon, - our largest concentration of membership - cannot receive the benefits of the program. The 2010 population of city of Muskegon was 38,401, according the US Census Bureau. The federal government’s rationale is that if they live in a larger city, they have easier access to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), more commonly known as the food stamp program.
But they don't have the choice to decide which program they would rather receive. And in most cases, the food commodity program is more desirable because once it is determined that a family meets the income eligibility guidelines, that family gets a full months worth of food, whereas if a family is determined to meet the income eligibility guidelines with the SNAP program, the amount of benefit placed on their bridge card decreases the closer to the top of the income limit they get. So a family of four could meet the income guidelines, but only receive $25 on their bridge card because they are close to the top of the income limit.
Not only is it hard to explain to people why they cannot get food commodities even though they live in a serviceable area, but is extremely hard on the hearts of those who administer the program to have to tell they're people they cannot help them only because of their address.
The USDA does offer a waiver process but it is cumbersome and seems a catch 22 so to speak. For example, the Little River Band applied for the waiver stating that if approved we would open a satellite office for a distribution site in Muskegon, Michigan.
The denial stated that because we didn't budget for either a refrigerated truck or satellite distribution site in Muskegon County in our annual budget that we were not prepared or able to provide the commodity benefit to that location. Why would we budget for something we were only requesting the waiver for? If we had gotten the waiver, we would have prepared the budget appropriately.
Yvonne Theodore, the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians Food Commodity Supervisor met with me as she wanted to apply for the waiver again. In reviewing the past waiver application, USDA policy and documents it occurred to us that Little River couldn't be the ONLY Tribe with this problem so we decided to ask other programs in our region if they had the same problem.
We asked within our region. The responses from just our region were overwhelming. This led the president of our region decided to ask all food commodity programs in the United States if they were experiencing difficulty because they were restricted in whom they could help. Within hours of that email going out all over Indian Country, my phone started ringing off the hook and emails started pouring in.
It seems that many, many Tribes feel the pain of not being able to feed their people simply because of their address.
Most all communities in the United States offer a commodity program typically run by a community action agency. Non-tribal families get to choose between obtaining monthly food from a community action agency or the SNAP program, but tribal families have to choose between one or the other. It seems unfair and mostly about money.
If participating American Indian tribes were allowed to serve urban Indians, it would mean that the federal government would need to authorize more money to the USDA and the USDA would need to spend more money on this program. Tribes are responsible for 25 percent of the amount we request every year, so it would mean that we would be responsible for authorizing more money as well.
While I certainly cannot speak for Indian Country, I would hazard to guess that being able to serve more of our people would be well worth at least looking into.
Melissa A. Waitner is a Certified Grant Professional (GPC) and the director of Grants at the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, based in Manistee, Michigan. She is a tribal member of the Little River Band.
posted June 8, 2011 10:57 am et
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