Misconceptions Abound About Nutrition of Federal Food Programs

On November 28, 2012, Indian Country Today Media Network published this article on the diabetes problem in the Native American community. The article provides compelling perspective on a serious problem and shares with us staggering national statistics on rates of diabetes among Native Americans. This perspective is not new to us. In early 2012, the U.S. Department of Agriculture published a report to Congress titled, “Addressing Child Hunger and Obesity in Indian Country,” and summarizes hunger, obesity, and Type II diabetes prevalence among American Indian and Alaska Native children living on or near reservations. This report echoes similar alarming rates of diabetes among Native youth.

As the ICTMN article describes, there are many programs responding to this grave health issue. I commend magazines such as yours for highlighting the diabetes epidemic while articulating successful programs that are showing positive results.

In that spirit, I want to address a misconception about the nutritional quality of foods provided by Federal nutrition programs. The article quotes a health expert as stating, “Federal food supplied to reservations and to the urban poor also tend to be high-calorie, low nutrition,” and, “‘you are lucky if you can find a vegetable within 50 miles….’” While this statement may have been accurate many years ago, it does not reflect the reality of Federal nutrition programs today.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) works closely with Tribes to provide healthy foods and nutrition assistance to Native Americans who face food insecurity through programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP); the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC); the National School Lunch Program (NSLP); the School Breakfast Program (SBP); the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR); as well our farmers market programs. All of these programs provide eligible individuals with the opportunity to receive fruits and vegetables.

For example, FDPIR is specifically targeted to those living on or near participating Indian reservations and provides eligible individuals with an opportunity to choose monthly from a wide variety of healthy, USDA-purchased foods. Participants on most reservations can choose fresh produce instead of canned fruits and vegetables. And we are constantly striving to improve the nutritional value of USDA Foods by reducing sugar, salt and fat in further-processed products. USDA canned fruits are now packed in extra light sucrose syrup or slightly sweetened fruit juice; and all apple sauce is unsweetened. We’ve reduced the sodium in all canned beans and vegetables, and frozen vegetables with no added salt are also available. We also offer a number of whole grain and low-fat meat and lean poultry products. In fact, research has shown that the foods offered in FDPIR make for a far healthier diet than what the average American consumes.

Nutrition education is also a key component of our efforts. USDA strives to provide Indian Tribal Organizations and State and local agencies the resources they need to educate participants on the benefits of foods offered in our programs, and how such foods can contribute to a healthful diet.

All of our Federal nutrition programs offer highly nutritious foods and quality services to participants. Yet FNS is never satisfied with the status quo. We work continually to improve the food choices in all of our programs. For example, working cooperatively with Native American communities, FNS regularly reviews the foods choices offered in FDPIR to ensure that its nutrient profile is consistent with the latest version of the Dietary Guidelines and reflects participants’ food preferences.

As the agency responsible for administering Federal nutrition assistance programs, FNS takes its mission seriously to provide Americans with better access to food and a more healthful diet. We strive to provide quality, nutritious products to the people we serve and to partner effectively with the communities with whom we work. That commitment is reflected in the foods offered in our nutrition assistance programs like FDPIR, which continues to fulfill a unique place in the Federal food safety net. No other nutrition assistance program combines the reach into Indian Country with the opportunity for local administration. Through these types of efforts, USDA FNS has been and will continue to be a partner in the national effort to combat food insecurity and improve the health of all Americans.

Darlene L. Barnes is the regional administrator, Mountain Plains, for the USDA Food and Nutrition Service