Tribal Elder Food Box Program

Dan Cornelius on the CIAS Citizens Advisory Council was the spark behind the Tribal Elder Food Box Program initiated in 2021. This intertribal program is building a market for Tribally-produced, culturally appropriate, and healthy foods while improving rural food security. Tribal food distribution experiences point to the challenges of moving and aggregating local food from production regions to packing house and then out to several distant stops, especially for perishable products. Shifting resources from charitable food provisioning to building capacity for self-provisioning is a strategy that could be applied more widely.

Rural Tribal food access is differently organized and these rural communities face additional challenges accessing food. Most Tribal lands are located in regions designated by USDA as “Frontier and Remote”, where access to food and health care is extremely limited. As a result, these rural communities rely on federal food distribution through treaties and the Federal Trust Responsibility’s Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR). FDPIR can be run by state government or by Indian Tribal Organizations (ITOs) and today ITOs run most programs. FDPIR is the sole or primary source of food for 38% of Tribal households across the country. Perishable food is distributed through the US Department of Defense Fresh program, through contracts with local food distributors for service. Wisconsin distribution is typically once per month.

In a pilot program authorized under the 2018 Farm Bill, eight Tribal FDPIRs around the country were awarded contracts to choose and purchase their own foods, and may source food from local and tribally-owned businesses. Under the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975, referred to as the “638”, the $3.5 million Self-Determination Demonstration Project made three contracts with Nations located in Wisconsin: the Oneida Nation/Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin, the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa from Wisconsin.

To improve access to perishable healthful foods, several organizations formed a planning committee led by Amy Meinen in the UW School of Human Ecology, to transform Tribal foodsystems by purchasing Tribal and local foods for Tribal elders. The committee is made up of Tribal officials and farmers, food bank leaders, the University of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Food Hub Cooperative as the logistical and distribution partner. In 2023 the committee organized as a nonprofit, the Great Lakes Intertribal Food Coalition, headquartered at the Menominee Nation Department of Agriculture and Food Systems, and managed by Kaya DeerInWater.

Kara Black at Feeding America – Eastern Wisconsin manages procurement and distribution, volunteers fill the boxes at the Wisconsin Food Hub Cooperative, Tera Johnson at the coop arranges the in-coming and out-going truck routes, keeps the cold chain and delivers product to the Tribal food warehouses. Warehouse managers at each site receive the boxes and manage distribution to Elders.

Each box contains perishable food items sourced from Indigenous and local producers. Boxes include a combination of protein (beef, bison, venison, fish, chicken, and pork) and produce (greens, apples, berries, corn, beans, squash, potatoes, tomatoes, and other seasonal produce). Proteins sourced for the boxes include fish from Red Cliff Fish Company and distributions alternate buffalo and beef raised by Oneida.

The 2021 pilot program of the Tribal Elder Food Box Program served seven Tribal Nations in Wisconsin and Michigan, delivering nearly eleven thousand boxes of food produced by Native American farmers and local farmers. In 2022, the program expanded to serve eleven Tribal Nations in Wisconsin, including distribution to at least nine locations within the study area.  24,400 boxes and nearly 59% of the product by value was produced by Native Americans, with the remainder produced by local farmers. In 2023, the program projects thirty thousand boxes and products from more than twenty Indigenous producers.

In addition to weekly meetings to discuss the nuts and bolts of food procurement and distribution, the Coalition is building capacity for Indigenous food production. Partner organizations in the Coalition are providing training to beginning farmers in agronomy, horticulture, food safety and distribution. CIAS worked with a large planning committee to offer the session “Farm to Community Wellness: Networking Local Food Supply Chains” at the 2023 Marbleseed Organic Farming Conference.

For more on the program, to support the work, and view a short video on the program, go to the website for the Great Lakes Intertribal Food Coalition.

The Tribal Elder Food Box Program was inspired by food as medicine and implemented through a partnership between Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, Forest County Potawatomi, Ho-Chunk Nation, Lac Courte Oreilles, Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin, Oneida Nation, Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, Stockbridge-Munsee Community Band of Mohican Indians, Feeding Wisconsin & it’s network of food banks, Intertribal Agriculture Council, Wisconsin Food Hub Cooperative, Department of Ag, Trade and Consumer Protection, UW-Madison, and healthTIDE.

University of Wisconsin participants include Amy Meinen, from the School of Human Environment who leads the planning committee, Dan Cornelius from the Great Lakes Indigenous Law Center and a CIAS CAC member who organized the effort, and Michelle Miller, CIAS bringing information on rural food distribution to the effort. CIAS and Tribal food sovereignty work was initiated in 2013.