Congress must work with, not against, tribal communities in crafting Farm Bill
© Greg Nash

From dairy farmers to foresters to everyone depending on nutrition assistance, Americans will be significantly impacted by the 2018 Farm Bill. Native American tribes likewise have a large stake in the Farm Bill; yet, our relative invisibility can make it easy for policymakers to overlook our critical needs and the prominent role we play in agricultural and livestock production. My job is to make it hard for them to ignore our voices.

Native communities endure the most extreme health disparities in the U.S. primarily due to the lack of access to healthy, nutritious food. Nationally, one in four Native Americans depend on federal nutrition programs. While tribes have greatly advanced our capacity to administer food distribution programs to include nutritious foods, the ideological shift to delivered boxes of food is ill-guided as it presumes delivery infrastructure that doesn't exist. Entitlements are not based on race but were pre-paid in treaties that ceded hundreds of millions of acres of land to the government.

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Tribal leaders are concerned about efforts to impose work requirements on food assistance recipients. Many tribal communities are located in food deserts or rural areas where nutrition assistance participation rates can reach up to 80 percent, but employment opportunities are virtually non-existent.

The House version of the Farm Bill, which was voted down on May 18, was a major disappointment. While the bill included provisions positively impacting Indian Country, such as moving nutrition programs to regional models to better support local producers; allowing two-year carryover funding for the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDIPR); making tribes, like states, eligible entities for Good Neighbor Authority agreements; and authorizing a Public Law 93-638 Tribal Self-Determination demonstration program to manage national forests next to existing Indian lands, there were also many missed opportunities and steps backward.

The Senate has an opportunity to craft a more bipartisan Farm Bill that carefully balances the needs of the many constituencies impacted by it. Tribes in Michigan are fortunate to have Sen. Debbie StabenowDeborah (Debbie) Ann StabenowTrump draws bipartisan fire over Brennan The farm bill gives Congress a chance to act on the Pet and Women Safety (PAWS) Act Michigan county investigating ballot shortage in election MORE representing us – and serving as the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry. Stabenow can help ensure that the Farm Bill includes policies that respect tribal sovereignty and promote tribal self-determination without causing further harm and insecurity to those already struggling.

As the Senate assembles its version of the Farm Bill, a broad coalition of tribes and Native organizations is urging Stabenow and her colleagues to apply Public Law 93-638 Tribal Self-Determination authority to all U.S. Department of Agriculture food and nutrition assistance programs, so that tribal governments – those closest to their members and surrounding communities – can choose to administer all USDA nutrition, distribution and job and training assistance programs.

Tribes have been using Public Law 93-638 since its inception to gradually assume managerial responsibility for many federal programs. Using this familiar tool to manage USDA programs is a natural step Congress should take with this Farm Bill reauthorization.

Tribes like mine and others in our Native Farm Bill Coalition are optimistic about the future of Indian Country – one in which tribes are proactively working to improve and take control of our food destinies.

We urge Stabenow and other congressional leaders to ensure that the interests of Indian Country are included in Farm Bill negotiations this year. We have significant opportunities to build capacity for a better, more self-reliant future – but to achieve that, Native communities need Congress to be our ally.

The Honorable Aaron Payment is the Chairman of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, the largest federally recognized Native American tribe in Michigan, and 1st Vice-President of the National Congress of American Indians.