Chair Grijalva and Rules Committee Chair McGovern Examine Indigenous Food Insecurity, Request GAO Inquiry

Washington, D.C. – Chair Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) of the House Natural Resources Committee and Chair James P. McGovern (D-Mass.) of the House Rules Committee today examined the ongoing injustice of food insecurity among Indigenous communities in the U.S. at a joint roundtable discussion titled Ending Hunger in America: Indigenous Nutrition and Food Systems. The issue prompted the lawmakers, together with Rules Committee Ranking Member Tom Cole (R-Okla.), to send an inquiry request to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) earlier this week.                                   

To learn more about food insecurity in Indigenous communities, read Committee on Natural Resources Democrats’ Medium post on the issue HERE.

In their request to GAO, the lawmakers explained that high levels of food insecurity and hunger in Indian Country results in greater reliance on federal nutrition programs administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), including the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations and the National School Lunch Program. The request asks GAO to assess USDA’s implementation of these programs in tribal communities and whether there are opportunities for more effective tribal administration of these programs. 

During today’s roundtable discussion, Grijalva, McGovern, and other members renewed their call on President Biden to convene a national White House Conference on Food, Nutrition, Hunger, and Health. The conference would bring together food banks, hospitals, government agencies, nonprofit organizations, educators, farmers and ranchers, people with lived experiences, and more to initiate a whole-of-government plan for ending hunger and reducing nutrition insecurity.

Grijalva and McGovern also called on Congress and federal agencies to learn from and be a better partner with Indigenous Peoples in addressing food insecurity and hunger.

“As members of Congress, it’s time to listen to Indigenous Peoples, the original cultivators of this land,” Grijalva said in his opening remarks. “We must understand that sustainable food creates a strong community. As the Committee looks forward to promoting… and providing leadership on issues important to Indian Country, such as co-management, issues of consultation, and the traditional [Indigenous] ecological contributions that tribes can make to land use and water use—so too can that [Indigenous] ecological tradition and knowledge be applied to the issues of nutrition and food.”

“Tribal nations have rich histories of feeding their people and caring for their land,” McGovern said. “They know agriculture, they know about land conservation, and they know about animal preservation. And as we will hear today, Indigenous communities are doing their part; they are innovating and trying everything in their power to fight hunger and food insecurity and nutrition insecurity. But they can’t do it alone. Self-governance holds great promise, but only if the federal government is a good, respectful partner. Long wait times for land use decisions, underfunding of needed programs, and our failure to respect the knowledge of Indigenous Peoples to know the best way to care for their people—that’s not being a good partner.”

Panelists at the roundtable, all of whom represented Indigenous communities, shared their expertise and personal stories about how food insecurity has affected Indigenous Peoples and how they are working to address it.

The Honorable Joe Davis, Chairman of the Hoopa Valley Tribe, shared a story about the sole grocery store on the Hoopa Valley Reservation, the largest reservation in California by land base. The store, which was not run or managed by the Tribe, endured a major rat infestation, and was ordered to close by the county health department. The Tribe successfully built and opened a new tribally-managed store.

“The grocery chain, Ray’s Food Place, asked the Tribe to use their sovereign authority to override the county health department’s recommendation that the store be shut down until it can be cleaned and secured from rat contamination of the food. The Tribe wasn’t willing to do that. … We decided to tear the existing building down to the studs and rebuild. … Since that time, we were able to reopen the store. It brought roughly 40 jobs back to the community. It put the control of the food supply in our community back in the hands of the Tribe.”

Ms. Carly Griffith Hotvedt, JD, MPA, Associate Director of the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative at University of Arkansas’ School of Law, explained the history of harmful, assimilationist federal policies in Indian Country. She also outlined concrete policy changes the federal government can make to change course on that history.

“As self-governed nations, we cannot be truly sovereign unless we can feed our own people. That’s true for any nation. … But fair policies have not always been the norm for Indian Country. Even the acknowledgement of agricultural practices of Indigenous Peoples in the Americas has been shaped to fit narratives that were intended to control and exploit Indigenous Peoples for natural resources, like land, water, minerals, and timber.”

Ms. Lexie Holden, Associate Director of Policy & Government Relations for the Intertribal Agriculture Council, detailed how the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated food insecurity issues in Indian Country. She also highlighted Indigenous community programs that have had success in delivering healthy, nutritious food despite these challenges.

“From a survey with over 500 respondents, we learned that the overall food insecurity rate for Native American households during COVID-19, for those without children, was around 42 percent. For families with children, that number leaped to around 51 percent. Despite all of this, tribal communities have always been and continue to be resilient in the face of adversity.”

Mr. K??eo Duarte, Vice President of Community & 'Aina Resiliency at Kamehameha Schools, described how schools can be an important partner in addressing food insecurity and other nutrition issues among Native Hawaiians. School nutrition programs also help connect Indigenous families to traditional foods and practices.

“As an education institution, we are expanding our curriculum and we support the idea of reconnecting our students to growing and preparing our food. Programs like Farm-to-School support this curriculum, as well as being able to establish school gardens. … [Having] locally grown and Indigenous foods integrated within our school systems, as well as our health systems, then allows for our students, as well as our elders, to have accessibility to more nutritious foods. Opportunities to eat locally grown and Indigenous foods encourages students and their families to change their eating habits at home—and hopefully their palate—to reconnect them to the food of their ancestors.”

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, food security affected nearly one out of four Indigenous Peoples. Destructive federal policies, the remote and rural locations of many Indigenous communities, and the impacts of climate change are all major contributing factors.

A recording of the roundtable discussion livestream, which was held Feb. 18, 2022 at 12:00 p.m. Eastern can be viewed here.

Press Contact

Media Contact: Lindsay Gressard

(202) 225-6065 or (202) 740-4715 mobile