Government Food Boxes? It’s Nothing New for Native Americans

Government food rations have had a significant affect on indigenous health — and those affects have not been great.


When we think of food assistance, we usually think of food stamps, which now come in the form of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Here in Michigan, we have Bridge cards.

But the Trump administration now has a very different idea about how to provide food to people who can’t afford it. It would replace half of the benefits people receive with boxes, filled with nonperishable foods. They would not contain any fresh fruits or vegetables, and it would be up to the federal government to decide on those food items — not the people consuming them.

This might seem like a radical idea to many of us. But it’s not new. This is essentially what the government has been providing Native Americans on Indian reservations for decades. And it has had a significant impact on their health. And those health impacts have not been great.

Recently, the public radio network National Native News (NNN) did an extensive series on native health. Part of that series focused on nutrition and the history of these food programs on reservations.

The host of NNN, Antonia Gonzales, joins Detroit Today with Stephen Henderson to talk about the history of federal food assistance for Native Americans on reservations and what it has meant for their health.

“We hear from elders and historians that diseases such as diabetes and obesity was pretty much unheard of until colonization and with the arrival of rations, and that’s when the diets started to change,” says Gonzales.

She talks specifically about a kind of food that has become a well-known staple of many native diets across the country: frybread. It was the direct result of federal food rations, which contained flour, processed sugar, and lard — ingredients that were not part of traditional native diets. 

“It has become a tradition in tribal communities, every single community I’ve ever visited across the United States,” says Gonzales. “A lot of people take pride in their frybread.”

“It is delicious. It tastes good. But it’s not necessarily good for you,” she says.

Click on the audio player above to hear the full conversation.


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    Dynamic and diverse voices. News, politics, community and the issues that define our region. Hosted by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Stephen Henderson, Detroit Today brings you fresh and perceptive views weekdays at 9 am and 7 pm.