The U.S. House passed a farm bill July 11 that leaves out funding for the national Food Stamp program that many Native Americans rely on for sustenance, but that wasn’t the only Native-friendly part of the bill that was chopped.
Another lesser known program that was contained in the Senate version of the farm bill (S. 954), which passed in June, included support for a feasibility study that would explore which tribes are able to administer federal food assistance programs and related services and activities. It would also create a mechanism to help more tribes be able to do so in the future. Tribes that don’t want to take over the programs, or don’t have the ability to do so, would not have to.
Along with all other nutrition-focused items, House Republicans removed this tribal plan from their version of the bill.
That’s a problem, according to the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI). “Since tribes have a duty to protect the welfare of their citizens, it should only follow that tribal governments should identify and possess greater control of the programs that will meet their needs,” according to a briefing paper provided to Congress in May by NCAI.
Currently, federal and state officials administer the vast majority of Indian interactions with the hunger and nutrition safety net in America. In some cases this leads to poor outcomes for Indians, who are sometimes underserved, or not made aware of opportunities under the programs.
NCAI notes that of the 15 federal food assistance programs, tribes are only eligible to administer the Commodity Supplemental Food Program, the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations, and the Women, Infants, and Children program. There are some strong examples of tribes doing a good job in these areas, NCAI says, so organization leaders believe it would be natural and right to increase their responsibilities.
Even given the House’s avoidance of this issue, time has not run out for the tribal study. That’s because Senate and House leaders are still deciding whether they can come up with a compromise to pass a farm bill that includes a food stamp program, and tribal advocates are hopeful that the study can be inserted into the final bill.
“Politically, there is much for both sides to like: Republicans like devolving things from the U.S. government to tribes, and Democrats like to support tribes in general, and especially when it comes to things like nutrition,” said Paul Moorehead, an Indian affairs lawyer with Drinker Biddle & Reath. Moorehead said that the tribal push for the study is “in keeping with the trend toward tribes managing federal programs outside the two main agencies, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Service.”
Many advocacy organizations and news outlets beyond Indian country are calling on Congress to merge the passed House and Senate bills into a single plan that supports both farms and hungry families – and Congress has traditionally been able to agree to do this – so the possibility for the tribal study is alive.
Thom Wallace, spokesman for NCAI, said the tribal study effort is “[b]asically a first step in allowing the tribes to administer SNAP (the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as Food Stamps).” Tribes have long been forthright about wanting to manage programs administered by the federal government, because they believe they can do a better job.
Wallace noted that NCAI’s recommendations were included in H.R. 1947, the House’s rejected farm bill that included support for food stamps, but they were not included in the House’s passed H.R. 2642 farm bill because it stripped support for all nutrition programs.
The Senate’s passed version of the farm bill, meanwhile, would require the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture to "conduct a study to determine the feasibility of a tribal demonstration project for tribes, in lieu of state agencies or other administrating entities, to administer Federal food assistance programs, services, functions, and activities (or portions thereof)." It’s this version that tribal advocates are hoping becomes a part of the compromise legislation.
The Senate bill’s language says the study would be a tool for determining which tribes are capable of taking over the administration of federal nutrition programs, and it would create a pathway for a tribal demonstration project that could help more tribes become able to do so.
While none of the passed legislation to date puts a price tag on the tribal feasibility study, Moorehead said there are “pots of money” within the U.S. Department of Agriculture to get this idea off the ground.