PHA Supports Greater Access and Parity in USDA Foods Programs
The USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) is proposing to amend its regulations to make access and parity improvements within several food distribution programs, including the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP), the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR), The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), and USDA Foods disaster response.
Through these food distribution programs, also known as the USDA Foods programs, USDA purchases 100% American grown foods and makes those foods available to state agencies, including Indian Tribal Organizations (ITOs). State agencies and ITOs, in collaboration with public and nonprofit partners, then distribute the foods to those in need, including low-income children, adults, seniors, and Native Americans. The USDA Foods programs are a key part of our nation’s social safety net.
The proposed changes would first and foremost make it easier for eligible individuals to access the applicable food distribution programs and for program operators to more easily provide participants with those resources. The pandemic led to many more people relying on emergency food assistance, and the USDA is now applying some of the lessons learned from that crisis to improve its food distribution programs.
The USDA also seeks to modernize the food programs through updating outdated terminology and making technical adjustments regarding income, verification, and reporting.
Lastly, many households participate in the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR) as an alternative to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and the USDA’s proposed changes are intended to increase parity between the two programs in terms of eligibility and benefits provided.
You can learn more about the proposed changes here.
Partnership for a Healthier America’s (PHA) vision is to transform the food system in pursuit of health equity. We believe that everyone in every zip code should have access to food that is affordable, sustainable, nutritious, high-quality, and culturally connected. We support the USDA’s goal of increasing access and parity within the food distribution programs, and believe that overall the proposed changes would represent major strides in equitable access for Americans living with limited incomes to nutritious foods. However, we have also identified a few areas where further improvements could be made. Below we outline these suggestions, addressing each food program separately.
1. The Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP)
PHA recognizes the extreme food insecurity among individuals 60+ and the unique role that nutrition plays in their sustained health. We support noted changes to the Commodity Supplemental Food Programs (CSFP), particularly increasing income eligibility guidelines to match the double burden of low income individuals on fixed, limited incomes, especially in rural areas.
Additionally, reducing duplicative tasks in verifying eligibility, allowing communities, specifically Native Nations, to culturally relevant methods of identity verification, increasing awareness of the CSFP through public webpages, sharing written information, and updating terminology are changes PHA supports.
2. USDA Foods in Disasters
PHA supports the proposed provisions under the USDA Foods in Disasters rule.
3. The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP)
PHA supports the proposed provisions under The Emergency Food Assistance Program rule. Providing uniform instruction across state agencies enhances food equity, and develops momentum towards peer learning and straightforward participant engagement.
4. The Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR)
- USDA Proposal: Any urban place outside of the reservation boundaries may be served by the Indian Tribal Organizations (ITO) without justification.
PHA has consulted with people working within ITOs and we understand that this proposal comes from input by Tribal leaders during Nation to Nation Consultations with FNS leadership after nearly a decade of dialogue between FNS and Tribal leaders. As a result of historic federal policies, enrolled citizens and descendants of Tribes across the country may live in urban areas beyond the reservation.
Yet they still face challenges in securing stable, nutritious foods, and have difficulty in obtaining FDPIR services despite living in a Tribe’s FNS service area. Indeed, nearly seven out of every 10 American Indians and Alaska Natives—2.8 million—live in or near cities, and that number is growing.*
The proposed change allows ITOs to serve Tribal citizens in urban areas without the administrative burden of requesting and justifying the need. Removing this barrier reflects the contemporary living situations of Tribal members and descendants and is necessary to meet their needs. PHA supports the cautionary recommendation, which was also offered by some Tribal leaders during consultation on this issue. It is suggested to include language in this updated regulation that makes it clear an ITO has the option to serve these urban places if the ITO so chooses, but that it is not a requirement. It should not be a mandatory requirement on any ITO to offer FDPIR to these areas given the limitations many have in personnel, administrative, and transportation capabilities. This small change preserves Tribal Sovereignty in offering this program and eliminates a burdensome and needless administrative requirement at the same time.
- USDA Proposal: FNS may waive or modify specific regulatory requirements for ITOs in certain situations. Waivers must be approved by FNS and may only be issued in specific situations outlined by FNS.
PHA supports programmatic flexibility via waivers and recognizes the sovereignty of Native Nations to make decisions that are best for their citizens. Regarding the “compelling reason” for a proposed change the USDA would expect a Tribe to provide when making a request, PHA believes for Tribal Nations, the exercise of their sovereignty is the only compelling reason needed; reasons beyond that are merely creating additional paperwork and administrative processes for both Tribal Nations and USDA alike. While this language offers more flexibility than its current form, more could be done to support sovereignty. Specifically, Tribal leaders have previously proposed that FNS honor the broad waiver language of Executive Order 13175, which applies to all federal departments and would enable waiver of discretionary provisions in programs.**
- USDA Proposal: FDPIR shelter and utility standard deductions are increased to the level of the SNAP maximum deduction, and FDPIR households may use actual expenses to calculate the deductions.
PHA recognizes this proposal comes directly from the Tribal Leaders Consultation Work Group that sits in Consultation with FNS three times a year to address challenges within the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations and supports this much needed change.**
- USDA Proposal: Separated household status can be granted to separated spouses who are living apart.
Allowing families living in separate households that were once denied the ‘separated household status’ is a positive change. Keeping SNAP and FDPIR requirements in parity, participants have a more seamless opportunity to migrate from either program through commonly held verification standards.
- USDA Proposal: FNS is required to periodically assess how USDA Foods provided in FDPIR compare to the DGAs and to adjust food package contents to ensure they are consistent with basic dietary needs.
PHA believes in the autonomy of the FDPIR Food Package Work Group and appreciates its dedication in collaboration between the agency, its partners and ITO staff. PHA supports the progress made in offering nutritious, and on occasion, culturally-appropriate foods.
- USDA Proposal: Requesting public comment on whether there are data sources outside of HHS that FNS should also consider when establishing income guidelines for FDPIR, and/or whether FNS should consider use of a gross income eligibility requirement without deductions.
PHA is sensitive to the varying situations faced in Indian Country. Because of this, PHA suggests considering the use of a gross income eligibility requirement without deductions and/or consider guidelines that include shelter and utility cost deductions.
- USDA Proposal: Requesting public comment from FDPIR administering agencies on whether the current administrative funding methodology provides adequate funding to meet needs, how the methodology could be improved, and the effectiveness of the current regional allocation and budget negotiation process. Also requesting comment on whether another model would better serve ITOs.
PHA supports ITOs in making public comments and understands the staffing constraints ITOs may be working with. However, PHA recognizes the importance of inclusion of Native voices, especially where decisions are being made.
- USDA Proposal: Updating terminology
PHA supports the proposed provisions to update terminology throughout the rule.
PHA has submitted its public comment on this proposed rule as of October 13, 2023. The USDA will carefully review and analyze every comment submitted before developing a final rule for implementation.
Be sure to follow along for updates on the final ruling.
*Invisible Tribes: Urban Indians and Their Health in a Changing World. (n.d.). Census.gov. Retrieved October 12, 2023, from https://www2.census.gov/cac/nac/meetings/2015-10-13/invisible-tribes.pdf
**Food and Nutrition Service Proposed Changes Impacting Tribes and Tribal Citizens. (2023, September 12). Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative. Retrieved October 12, 2023, from https://www.indigenousfoodandag.com/blog/news/food-and-nutrition-service-proposed-changes-impacting-tribes-and-tribal-citizens/