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Jeniffer Solis
Nevada Current

A community store and food pantry on the Walker River Paiute reservation in Northern Nevada has been operating out of the tribe’s technology center for the past two years.

The makeshift store carries produce, meat, and other essentials that can be ordered and safely delivered to those living on the reservation amid the pandemic.

But the store and pantry will soon get its own dedicated building as part of a bigger plan to increase food security for the tribe in the years to come.

The Walker River Paiute Tribe was awarded a $1 million grant to construct a community food center, which will provide nutrition and wellness programs. The grant is part of a new round of grant funding that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

During the pandemic, food access for all Nevada tribes was made worse with store shortages and supply chain disruptions. Faced with growing food insecurity, tribal leadership decided to submit applications for funding to build a dedicated food distribution center as part of a long term food security plan.

“It’s going to have a kitchen where we’ll eventually start nutrition classes with recipes, while also incorporating intergeneration cooking classes with our elders and our youth. Hopefully, well also be able to use some of the space for cultural activities related to food, like bringing back our traditional foods,” said Amber Torres, chair of the Walker River Paiute Tribe.

The largest barrier to implementing beneficial nutrition programs for the tribe’s membership is the lack of infrastructure on the reservation, said Torres. A lack of available facilities forced the tribe to run their food distribution program from their technology center during the pandemic.

“We took a look at where is the biggest need, and we took a shot at this,” Torres said.

The Walker River Paiute Tribe gets food distributed monthly from the Yerington Paiute reservation as part of a USDA federal commodities program, adding logistical complications for food access.

“Our people take all that months worth of food and it could be boxes upon boxes of food,” Torres said. “It then becomes a safety and space issue within their homes.”

Torres said the tribe wants the authority to run the federal commodities program (called the The Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations or FDPIR) as a store, a model used by various other tribes nationwide. Building a dedicated facility on the reservation to house food that could then be delivered to families safely would make a storefront model possible.

“That is our priority right now, to make sure we have an area that would house food for our people,” Torres said. “I want to bring some dignity back to our people to be able to come in on a daily basis and take what they want without feeling like they have to take it all.”

During the pandemic, almost half (47 percent) of Native peoples reported receiving food assistance from their tribal government. However, the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations is one of the few programs that gives Tribal governments the authority to administer the federal nutrition program, making the program a vital part of nutrition availability on reservations.

Before COVID-19, 1 in 9 respondents utilized FDPIR, according to a survey on food security among tribal nations, but the programs demand increased by 214 percent during the pandemic.

FDPIR serves some of the most vulnerable people in tribal communities, according to the USDA. About two-thirds of all FDPIR households have children under the age of 18, and about 40 percent of FDPIR households have an elder over the age of 65 in the home.

“Planning for the future is one of our biggest goals and I think by starting this we’re actually moving in that direction,” Torres said. “Making sure that if anything were to happen, we won’t need to go off the reservation to acquire it or have it brought in. We want to be able to manage on our own.”

In an effort to meet the immediate nutrition needs of the tribe the Walker River Paiute Tribe also spent a portion of their CARES Act funds towards food production to ensure food security as part of a food sovereignty program. The tribe also plans to grow the program once they build a dedicated community food center.

“Were looking at seed-to-table. Seeing what we’re growing and handing that out to the community so that food is never an issue,” Torres said.

The need to create a long term plan to source their own food was another lesson learned, said Torres.

Due to administrative delays, food dollars for FDPIR were some of the last—if not the very last—funds to be spent out of nutrition program money Congress appropriated in the CARES Act. Additionally, despite its importance to reservations, FDPIR did not get the kind of enhanced benefits during COVID-19 as other federal nutrition programs did, said food researchers.

Funding for the Walker River Paiute Tribe’s community food center follows HUD’s December award of more than $5 million in Indian Community Block Grant-American Rescue Plan (ICDBG-ARP) grants to five Tribal communities in Nevada to prevent, prepare for, and respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The American Rescue Plan included a total of $280 million for the Indian Community Development Block Grant program, which will be awarded on a rolling basis into this year.

“It is imperative that we continue providing Tribal communities with resources needed to protect the health and safety of their communities,” said HUD Deputy Secretary Adrianne Todman in a statement. “HUD will continue to strengthen partnerships with Tribal communities to ensure that all communities receive equitable relief.”

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