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Hipp: Feds need to work with tribal governments, Native farmers

The federal government needs to work on a more equal level with tribal governments, and Native American farmers need contracts to provide foods for federal food assistance programs, Janie Simms Hipp, President Biden’s nominee for Agriculture Department general counsel, said in a video that was released today but taped on Friday.

The White House announced Hipp’s nomination on Monday and sent the Hipp nomination to the Senate today.

Speaking in her capacity as CEO of the Native American Agriculture Fund, Hipp told the National Anti-Hunger Policy Conference that over the past year she has developed deep respect for tribal governments as they have coped with the coronavirus pandemic. The tribes, she said, had to lay off employees and send children home from school at the same time they were trying to provide food to people and restrict access to reservations to try to keep out COVID-19 because their health care systems are so weak.



“I have never been so proud of tribal leadership. They have made sure food insecurity is at the top of their agenda,” Hipp said. The federal government needs to “elevate” tribal governments so that they are full partners in the delivery of programs, she said. Hipp is a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation.

Most Americans do not think much about Native Americans because the reservations are located in such remote parts of the country, she said. While lines at food banks highlighted the hunger issue for many Americans, on Indian reservations there were fewer lines because there are fewer food banks. Often there are no grocery stores, only convenience stores, she added. USDA is allowing participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to use online purchasing, but that won’t help in a lot of Indian Country because people don’t have the Internet access that is needed for online shopping, she said.



“We are going to have to get creative about how to order food,” she added.

Tribes have been fighting for more control over federal feeding programs, Hipp said. On the reservations, federal food assistance programs are managed by the tribal governments “with a strong arm” from USDA, she explained.

“A lot of folks have forgotten Native peoples were here growing food, feeding ourselves for tens of thousands of years. We assume Native communities can’t feed themselves. There is a lot of food grown within Native communities. It leaves, goes into other people’s communities.”

But contracts with federal assistance programs would help stabilize Native American farming operations, she said.

“We need to figure out how food intervention programs can be contoured in a new way that lifts up the communities we are trying to serve,” she said. At present people who are raising food “down the road can’t get into the programs,” she added.

There has been progress in getting Native foods into food distribution, but Native American foods are not “just buffalo and wild rice,” she said.

“Cultural foods actually feed your soul at the time they are feeding your body,” she said. “Science really supports that when we access foods that are traditional it is actually healthier.”

Hipp also noted that the relationship between Native Americans and USDA goes across many agencies. The Native American Agriculture Fund, she pointed out, was established out of money left over from the settlement of the Keepseagle case that Native American farmers won against the USDA’s Farm Service Agency for discrimination against Native American farmers.

While other minority leaders have criticized Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s performance during the Obama administration, Hipp pointed out that Vilsack settled that suit and she said she is glad he has returned as secretary. Vilsack, she noted, “doesn’t have to get up to speed” and that she believes there will be many progressive actions from the team he is building.

 


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