#24 Indigenous Communities Using Data Sovereignty to Address Food Insecurity

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The pandemic has compounded a host of systemic issues in the United States, including food insecurity in Indian Country. In an interview for High Country News, B. ‘Toastie’ Oaster spoke with the Native American Agriculture Fund’s CEO Toni Stanger-McLaughlin (Colville) to learn more about the special January 2022 report “Reimagining Hunger Responses in Times of Crisis.” Supply-chain problems during the pandemic caused extreme delays in usual deliveries, meaning many went without access to basic necessities. In response, various Native organizations and self-governing communities are using data sovereignty to obtain federal funds that could transform local agricultural infrastructure.

“For the first time, we’re going to take ownership of our data, and also the messaging and how the data is going to be interpreted,” said Stanger-McLaughlin.

The Native American Agriculture Fund (NAAF) partnered with the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative (INAI) and the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) to research and develop the report in an effort to educate Congress about the importance of local agricultural production in indigenous communities. The report discovered that Native households go hungry at vastly higher rates than their white counterparts do. About 48 percent of more than 500 indigenous respondents shared that “sometimes or often during the pandemic the food their household bought just didn’t last, and they didn’t have money to get more.”

NAAF, INAI, and FRAC discovered that Native communities more often turn to their tribal governments for help rather than access benefit cards, which are useless in rural areas where there are no nearby food stores. Farm-to-family direct sales became an increasingly popular way of acquiring food during the pandemic. Since the shift to producing and selling locally, instead of selling to stockyards, which then sell to processing plants, there have been reductions in transportation and storage costs. NAAF hopes that prioritizing Native-driven data collection will ultimately empower tribes that have waited too long on Washington leaders to make the right calls.

“We’re asking tribes to reach out and engage with us if they’re applying for federal funding, to use our work as a model of how we can all come together and actually leverage private and federal funding and expand and unify our mission, which is to feed our communities,” said Stanger-McLaughlin.

Food insecurity has shown up in many recent corporate news headlines, most often related to global havoc inflicted by the pandemic or climate change. In August 2020, the New York Times covered food deserts among members of the Navajo nation; in December 2021, the Washington Post reported on farmers adapting indigenous peoples’ sustainable farming efforts amidst dire water shortages. However, one noticeable gap in all corporate coverage is indigenous communities’ work to develop innovative solutions to historic inequity.

B. ‘Toastie’ Oaster, interview with Toni Stanger-McLaughlin, “The First Answer for Food Insecurity: Data Sovereignty,” High Country News, February 11, 2022.

Student Researchers: Emily Inman, Emma Stankiewicz, Maria Trifiro, and Kristina Vartanian (University of Massachusetts Amherst)

Faculty Evaluator: Allison Butler (University of Massachusetts Amherst)