Holly Hunts, PhD, CFCS, is a consumer economist and professor from Montana State University. She has been working with the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR, pronounced fuh-DIP-er), commonly called “commodities.”
The FDPIR food package is put together by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). This monthly package gets high scores on the Healthy Eating Index (HEI). HEI is a measure of diet quality that assesses conformance to the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Because the high scores seemed unusual compared to the scores for the average American diet and the average diet of SNAP participants, Hunts decided to take a closer look. What she found out was very interesting.
Dr. Hunts began to look at how the numbers were calculated. She found that the HEI looked at foods offered, i.e., all of the foods that it would be possible to receive. The HEI did not look at the specific foods received by one person. For example, on the USDA list, there are five different kinds of cereal. But in the food package the family brings home, there’s only one box of cereal per person. When the USDA looks at the nutrients, it counts all five boxes, not the one box that one person receives.
Next, Dr. Hunts looked at vegetables. An individual’s monthly food package contains 11 units of vegetables. A unit is 1.5 cups. So that adds up to 19.5 cups of vegetables a month. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends 3 cups of vegetables a day for a 14-18 year old male. That adds up to 90 cups a month. This means the FDPIR food package contains only one-fifth of the USDA’s own recommendation.
What Dr. Hunts found is a pattern of overestimating the nutrient values of the monthly food package given to individuals. Her work is not meant to denigrate FDPIR but to point out ways that the program can be improved.
The next step, Dr. Hunts suggests, is for tribal leaders to negotiate for USDA contracts to grow nutritious foods that can be part of the package. These local indigenous foods could be processed locally for distribution and made those foods available at the FDPIR food centers.
How did I hear about all this? Dr. Hunts was a presenter at the First Annual Native American Nutrition Conference, which I attended last September at the Mystic Lake Casino Hotel in Prior Lake.
The conference created a space in which to integrate traditional indigenous knowledge and Western scientific research focused on significant dietary factors contributing to profound Native health disparities. About 450 people from 32 states, 5 countries, and 40 tribes attended.
Opening ceremonies included a presentation of colors, drumming, and a blessing for the conference. These ceremonies set a pace and expectation for the serious work ahead. After opening remarks, attendees were asked to choose one of three tracks for breakout sessions:
- Healthy Eating and Nutrition Education
- Improving Native Food Systems
- Social Determinants of Native Nutritional Health
#nutrition16 Amazing sharing, learning & envisioning Native Nutrition Future! #IndigenousHealth @indiancountry @NativeSeedsSRCH pic.twitter.com/Wq3E46V5FU— LaLupe (@LaLupe1) September 27, 2016
Model programs in Indian Country were presented in the afternoon and the second day allowed for more small group work. The conference concluded with small groups presenting their work to the larger whole.
The First Annual Native Nutrition Conference was made possible by the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community (SMSC) as part of their Seeds of Native Health campaign. The University of Minnesota’s Healthy Foods Healthy Lives Institute has a joint partnership with the SMSC and worked to make the gathering a milestone event.
The purpose was to bring together leaders, activists, doctors, and scientists to find solutions to the nutritious food access prevalent in some Native American communities. This conference began to build a bridge between indigenous wisdom and academic research. Relationships among Natives and non-Natives were developed and a momentum was built to improve Native American nutrition.
Lori Watso w Seeds of Native Health (@ShakopeeDakota) talks abt bridging gap between indigenous wisdom and academic research. #Nutrition16 pic.twitter.com/30GnhDdtva— Doualy Xaykaothao (@DoualyX) September 26, 2016
And guess what! Registration is now open for the Second Annual Conference on Native American Nutrition. If this conference is of interest to you and fits within your scope of work, register soon. Registrations sold out quickly last year. Please note that there are scholarships available for which priority is given to people who are or who intend to be in a position to directly improve nutrition and health in Native communities.