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Native tribes look to improve food access through economic development

Fellowship Story Showcase

Native tribes look to improve food access through economic development

Picture of Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton

Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton’s reporting on hunger and food insecurity was undertaken as a project for the Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism and the National Health Journalism Fellowship, programs of the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism.

Other stories in the series include:

Native Health News Alliance
Monday, April 25, 2016

TULSA, Okla. — Groceries do not come cheaply.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, the average weekly cost of food for a two-parent, two-child family is anywhere from $131 to $300, depending on the age of the children and how tight the family’s budget is.

For the 27 percent of Native families who are living at or below the federal poverty line, even $131 per week for food is a challenge without some form of assistance.

With American Indians and Alaska Natives disproportionately qualifying for federal nutrition assistance programs, several tribes are trying to improve food access on their own while providing an economic stimulus for their communities. Some have opened food-focused businesses, including grocery stores and an organic produce wholesaler, while another has amended its tax code to make it less expensive to buy produce and bottled water.

Attention CPN shoppers…

Found in central Oklahoma, Pottawatomie County is within the jurisdictional area of four tribes: Absentee Shawnee, Citizen Potawatomi Nation, Kickapoo and Sac and Fox. According to a 2015 report issued by the Oklahoma Policy Institute, almost one-third of its residents receive SNAP benefits and 27 percent of children countywide live at or below the poverty line.

For the last 15 years, the largest of the county’s four tribes, the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, has attempted to address some of those issues through one of its non-gaming entities: FireLake Discount Foods.

Despite the industry’s typically tight profit margin of 3 percent or less per store, the tribe sees value in operating three grocery stores within its jurisdictional area: an 84,000 square-foot full service store on the south side of Shawnee, Oklahoma, and two smaller locations in Tecumseh, Oklahoma, and McLoud, Oklahoma. Additional expansion plans are in place for a fourth store. Between its three grocery stores alone, the tribe employs almost 400 people.

“The most important quality any local economy can create is turnover of their payroll and vendor-purchase dollars,” said Chairman John “Rocky” Barrett. “If an employee of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation purchases his or her groceries and gasoline at a tribally-owned store, that dollar has generated both a profit from operations and a profit from taxation.

“Grocery stores are great traffic builders for other retail businesses…even if we don’t own them, the community benefits.”

With local SNAP participation rates exceeding the state average, the three stores see a substantial surge in business on the first, fifth and 10th of each month when benefits are distributed.

SNAP benefits account for up to 30 percent of the total business on distribution days, prompting Richard Driskell, the general manager for FireLake Discount Foods’ flagship store in Shawnee, to bring in extra employees and tweak the store’s weekly sales to focus more on items covered by SNAP benefits.

“We make sure we have more staff on hand (on distribution days),” he said. “Our perishable department’s staffed pretty heavily, plus we have more people on the floor to answer questions.”

Two other Oklahoma tribes have also waded into the grocery business. In late 2014, the Osage Nation’s legislature appropriated $300,000 for equipment and structural improvements to facilitate the re-opening of a grocery store in Fairfax, Oklahoma, the site of one of the tribe’s annual ceremonial dances. Prior to the investment, local residents had to drive 30 minutes or more each way to access fresh produce and other perishables.

More recently, in early 2016, the Choctaw Nation opened Choctaw Country Marketplace in Clayton, Oklahoma, a community that had previously gone more than two years without a grocery store. In 2014, the Choctaw Nation became the first tribe to be named a federal Promise Zone, in part because more than half of its jurisdictional area – including Clayton and other communities in Pushmataha County — meets the USDA’s definition of a food desert.

One bell pepper at a time

Eight hours east-southeast of Clayton, another federally recognized Choctaw tribe is attempting to make fresh fruits and vegetables more readily available.

In 2012, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians launched Choctaw Fresh Produce, which grows and sells organically raised fruits and vegetables in and around the tribe’s 35,000-acre reservation.

According to the USDA, Mississippi has one of the highest state-wide rates of food insecurity in the country, with almost one-quarter of its residents not having consistent, dependable access to food.

The impetus for Choctaw Fresh Produce came in part from a series of community meetings but also from a request from the food and beverage director of the tribe’s casino.

“Our tribe runs a vocational rehabilitation program and for the last 10 years or so, it’s been raising the flowers for our resort,” said John Hendrix, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians’ director of Economic Development. “The casino’s food and beverage director came to me, pointed out that we were shipping in tons of fruits and vegetables and asked if there was any way we could grow some of those crops here instead.”

Fast-forward four years and Choctaw Fresh Produce’s crops are found at a few more sites than just a casino salad bar.

Along with selling to an area Whole Foods and a local co-op, Choctaw Fresh Produce has wholesale agreements with some of the tribe’s programs, including its diabetes prevention program and elementary schools.

“The kids get to come out, pick some vegetables, get reconnected with what they eat and hopefully, start eating healthier,” Hendrix said.

Its crops are also sold at a tribally run farmers market in the summers and through a mobile market run by the tribe’s Department of Natural Resources that makes the rounds each week to some of the reservation’s communities.

The business operates farm sites in Bogue Chitto, Mississippi; Conehatta, Mississippi; Pearl River, Mississippi; Red Water, Mississippi; and Tucker, Mississippi. Along with produce for Choctaw Fresh Produce’s clientele, each site has a local component based on the community’s needs.

“Several of those towns are very rural,” Hendrix said. “We wanted to bring in some economic development and this was meant to create some work opportunities there in those outlying areas.”

In previous years, the business offered a subscription service, with participants receiving a weekly box full of organic zucchini, kale, bell peppers, bok choy and other in-season produce. However, with the December death of Choctaw Fresh Produce’s lead farmer and general manager, Dick Hoy, the subscription service is suspended at least temporarily as Hendrix and the farmers regroup.

“It’s so hard and it is such a commitment that we just didn’t feel right taking people’s money for subscriptions in advance,” Hendrix said. “For now, we’re focusing on our wholesale and retail pieces instead.”

Hold the sales tax

With 10 grocery stories scattered across an area roughly the size of West Virginia, the Navajo Nation is considered a food desert by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Although some reservation residents without a nearby grocery store are able to be self-sufficient, far more are relying on convenience stores and trading posts as their main source of food.

In response to the high rates of diabetes, obesity and poverty among its citizens, the tribe adopted the Healthy Dine Nation Act of 2014, which removes a 5 percent sales tax on fruits, vegetables and bottled water purchased on reservation-based stores. It also imposes a 2 percent junk food tax on sodas, chips, candy, pastries and other foods deemed to have little to no redeeming nutritional value.

Under the terms of the law, which took effect on April 1, 2015, any revenue generated by the additional 2 percent junk food tax is automatically earmarked for community wellness projects overseen by the tribe’s 110 chapters, such as gardens, greenhouses, exercise equipment and classes on nutrition, food preparation or traditional Navajo crafts.

The tax is slated to expire in 2020, but can be extended by a vote of the Navajo Nation’s legislature.

However, implementation has been slow going, with the community distribution guidelines still being finalized as of April 1. Until those guidelines are in place, no checks from the tax’s revenue stream will be cut.

Retired teacher Gloria Begay is a spokeswoman for the Dine Community Advocacy Alliance, a grassroots organization that helped draft the bill and get it through the tribe’s legislature.

Over the course of two years, Begay put more than 30,000 miles on her pickup truck just by driving to chapter meetings across the Navajo Nation’s reservation to talk up the bill. She will be racking up even more miles this spring as she and other DCAA members go back to those community meetings to train chapter officials on what projects can be funded by junk food tax revenue.

For DCAA members, the tax change is a step toward improving the food system within the tribe’s reservation. It has also been a bit of a reality check, as not everyone on the reservation shared their enthusiasm for making it a little more expensive to buy a can of Mountain Dew or a bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.

“When we were presenting this to the chapters and the legislature, more than one grandma told us that the only way she could show love for her grandkids was by buying them a candy bar or a soda,” Begay said. “It’s been a wake-up call not only for the Navajo Nation, but for us too, as it (the Healthy Dine Nation Act) was a tough sell.

“We’ve had to remind people that we’re not asking them to go cold turkey. We just want them to cut back on their sugar, salt and fat.”

[This story was originally published by the Native Health News Alliance.]

Photos by Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton/Native Health News Alliance.