As part of the Farm Bill reauthorization in the House of Representatives, the Supplement Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) funding will be substantially cut. This cut is harmful for Cherokee Nation citizens and will hurt Indian Country.
In many homes, food stamps are the only means and access to quality, nutritious foods. A proposed nearly $40 billion cut in SNAP, which funds our state’s food stamp program, will have a dire effect on hundreds of Native families in northeast Oklahoma, harming the health and well-being of many Cherokee citizens. Nationally, those cuts, coupled with the recession and the high unemployment rates in heavily concentrated Native communities, could have a catastrophic impact.
Across Indian Country, 24 percent of Native households receive SNAP benefits, and 27 percent of Native people live below the poverty level, nearly double the national rate. Tribal citizens are more than twice as likely as any other demographic to depend on SNAP assistance to meet basic food needs to feed their families.
Oklahoma has one of the largest populations of American Indians, and it is one of the poorest states in the nation. More than half of Oklahoma counties have an average income at or below the federal poverty level. Oklahoma’s poverty rate of 17.2 percent is well above the national average and our child poverty rate is almost 25 percent, and those figures are highest in communities of color—Native, Hispanic and black homes.
We can and we must do better for all our people. To put it bluntly, we need an agriculture policy where access to healthy food for our citizens is part of the equation. We must have a commitment to take care of the most vulnerable among us: children, elders and those in need.
Cutting the $40 billion will only drive up health care costs and create real problems for the generation that follows us. Tribal citizens often face more obstacles in acquiring an adequate diet than other American citizens.
Educators nationwide agree that healthy bodies build healthy minds, and people learn better when properly and adequately fed. It is unacceptable to have our children and their families denied access to the foods they need to survive and to succeed. Food insecurity can impact a child’s health and create behavioral and psychological conditions, which limit a child’s God-given talent. This assistance, through alleviating hunger, provides our students access to achieve and become successful citizens and community leaders.
According to the National Congress of American Indians, the proposed Farm Bill “will allow states to end SNAP benefits to most adults who are receiving or applying for SNAP—including parents with children as young as 1 year old—if they are not working or participating in a work or training program for at least 20 hours per week despite being in areas with little-to-no employment opportunities. This would cut off an entire family’s food aid, including their children’s, for an unlimited time. States are incentivized to invoke this because they can keep half of the federal savings and cut critical funding for SNAP’s nutrition education program, which promotes healthy eating choices for low-income households.”
It’s time the federal government upheld its trust responsibility to American Indians and Alaska Natives. As Indian people, we do not deserve legislation that will severely cut food assistance to our communities. We do deserve a better agriculture policy in Oklahoma, for the Cherokee Nation and for Indian country.
Bill John Baker is the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation.