Fort Belvoir, Virginia –
To many, America’s Great Northwest may come to mind as one of abundance — of salmon, software and the Space Needle.
Yet there are Americans in this region and other areas of the United States who struggle to get a variety of nutritious food for themselves and their families — or enough food at all. This is particularly true for fresh fruits and vegetables.
One option for American Indians and Alaska Natives is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations, serving more than 92,000 participants, most of whom live in rural areas.
To help FDPIR participants get access to fresh produce, Defense Logistics Agency Troop Support’s Subsistence supply chain plays a crucial role. Since 1994, DLA Troop Support has worked with the USDA Food and Nutrition Service to handle several logistical tasks for FDPIR — tasks DLA also performs through the Department of Defense Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program.
FDPIR operates across the United States, with most sites west of the Mississippi River. Participants must meet income requirements and not be participating in USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in the same month.
A Pleasant Surprise
The Shoalwater Bay Reservation, on the central coast of Washington, is about 30 minutes from the towns of Raymond and Aberdeen. To the south is the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge, home of one of North America’s last four subspecies of elk.
American Indian tribes are very much a part of this region. Native Americans live on and near several reservations in the area — including the Shoalwater Bay Tribe Reservation, where Titiana Burks loads boxes into her vehicle at the tribal food center.
Burks has Alaska Native heritage but has lived in Washington state almost all her life. She participates in the FDPIR to help feed her family of five.
“This helps my family out tremendously, versus any other programs,” she said. “Each box is a surprise, I call it, because I don’t know what I’ll get ... but I’m very thankful for what I get.”
She’s a particular fan of the fresh fruits and vegetables she gets through FDPIR.
“I love it,” she said. “It’s kind of like harvesting them out of the garden without having a garden. My kids love the food.”
The fruits and vegetables are especially welcome because she’s trying to promote good dental health in her three children, she said.
Without the program, “I would probably go down to the local food bank and wait,” Burks said. “But I know this food is healthy and low-sodium.”
The food is a needed resource for her family of five, “and usually it’s just at the right time,” she said. “We utilize all the food we get.”
The Fruit Network
The seeds of DLA’s involvement in FDPIR were planted in 1994, when USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service began to work with DLA to supply fresh fruits and vegetables to schools. FNS had realized DLA Troop Support’s contracts with small regional wholesalers/distributors of fresh fruits and vegetables were the perfect way to help Native American tribes get those foods, said Patricia Scott, chief of DLA Troop Support’s Customer Operations Garrison Feeding Division.
That year, a USDA/DLA pilot project began, with $3.6 million of funding and serving eight states. The DoD Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, commonly known as “DoD Fresh,” was made official in 1996 and now serves schools in 48 states, as well as Guam, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the District of Columbia.
In FDPIR, FNS acts as the program manager, Scott explained. For FDPIR and its other USDA Foods programs, FNS buys a variety of healthy foods in many food categories in full truckload quantities from farmers across the nation, via USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service. But for smaller amounts of fruits and vegetables, USDA did not have contracts set up with the regional distributors.
“The DLA Subsistence produce contracts were the right fit for supplying smaller amounts of a wider range of fruits and vegetables to these remote areas,” Scott said. “DLA’s buying power enables all customers in each contract zone to get the same delivered price and highest quality produce from our contracted vendors.”
DLA Troop Support has long had a network of produce wholesalers, with about 80 small businesses serving DLA contracts across the nation.
The agency also monitors the quality of the produce, through personnel such as DLA Troop Support’s Michael Espinoza, a DLA subsistence representative who serves sites in Southern California. Each site has DLA customer service representatives assigned to it.
“I go out and make on-site visits to both military and non-military customers and make sure quality is up to par,” he said.
Benita Richotte-Lewis is the FDPIR director for the Small Tribes of Western Washington, in Lakewood, and is also a Native American. STOWW serves 14 tribes in this part of the state, as well as six in Southeast Alaska and two on the Aleutian Islands.
“We have two customer reps from DLA,” Richotte-Lewis said. “And when we’ve had maybe some small issues with either the quality of the produce or how it was received on the truck, we were able to contact the representatives at DLA. ... And they’ll take a look at what we’ve received,” usually with an on-site visit.
The program “is very well managed,” she said. The USDA and DLA personnel “do a lot with the nutrition part of the program ... with making sure clients get a good variety of items and making it healthy.”
Serving Their Communities
Many Native Americans give back to their communities by working for organizations that receive and distribute food received through FDPIR. Melvin Nelson is a warehouse worker and driver for the Southern California Tribal Chairmen’s Food Distribution Program. He’s also a veteran of the Navy Seabees and a Navajo.
He noted that the program is a vital lifeline for low-income families, especially when they first arrive in the area or don’t have access to a car.
“They’ve got to start somewhere, so I think this program really helps them out,” he said. “You’ve got to eat something before you get started doing anything else.”
David Gibson, also Navajo, is the assistant director and warehouse manager of the commodity food program at STOWW.
“This program provides a stable food base for our clients,” he said. “Many of them are Native, and a lot of them are non-Natives,” he said.
Gibson noted that many of the tribes served by STOWW don’t have any grocery store nearby.
“So we’re bringing food to them that they would otherwise have to drive a great distance to get,” he said.
He recalled his childhood visits to see his grandparents, who lived on a reservation in New Mexico and relied on FPPIR.
“We would drive 60 miles to the nearest town to get their commodities,” Gibson said, but back then, there were no fresh fruits and vegetables — only dry goods.
The current FPDIR “is a lot of better of a program,” Gibson said. Overall, “the produce is of very good quality. It rivals anything in a store.”
In addition to the actual food, FDPIR offers nutrition education from members of the community.
“We’re able to meet our clients face to face,” Richotte-Lewis explained. “We’re able to help them pick out their food. We explain the products to them and ... what’s available to them.”
In the area STOWW serves, deliveries usually become a community event, Gibson said. In one location, residents welcome the STOWW delivery staff with lunch they prepared using food from the program.
“That really means a lot to us,” he said.
Online to On-Plate
FDPIR serves 102 American Indian tribal organizations and three state agencies, representing 276 tribes and more than 92,000 participants. Each tribe uses an online catalog, the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Order Receipt System (known as FFAVORS) to choose foods for its participating members each month.
“Each vendor offers a catalog of fresh produce and pre-cut items, which can be viewed by the customers in their contract zone,” Scott explained.
Then, the regional produce distributors buy the produce requested on the FFAVORS order from local farmers and deliver it to each Native American organization’s chosen distribution point, such as a gymnasium or community center. Participants pick up the food at the central site, although for elderly residents or those with disabilities, some tribes deliver food directly to the participant’s home.
About 125 of those 276 tribes are served by a produce wholesaler working under a DLA contract. DLA encourages these vendors to buy as much local produce as possible.
Communities can use the FFAVORS catalog to choose what they want from a list provided by USDA. Because all food must be sourced from the United States (in accordance with the Berry Amendment), foods not available from U.S. growers, such as bananas, are not on the list. However, a wide variety is available, from staples such as potatoes and onions, to greens and citrus fruits. More recently, lemons and cranberries have been added.
In addition, FDPIR offers traditional American Indian foods like bison and blue cornmeal, Gibson said. In the Northwest, canned salmon is a local favorite.
“[Blue cornmeal is] a Navajo staple. It mixes up into a breakfast cereal, into a drink — and you can make some good muffins with it,” he said.
The program has grown steadily over the years, Scott said. Over the 12 months beginning in July 2015, DLA contracted for $9 million in fruits and vegetables for FDPIR.
FDPIR and its sister USDA food programs began in the 1930s as a reaction to the Great Depression, according to USDA’s history website. The Agriculture Act of 1935 funded the USDA’s purchase of surplus crops from U.S. farmers, whose plight was memorialized in works like John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.”
A decade later, the War Department — on the cusp of its postwar restructuring and rebranding to become DoD — found that many would-be military recruits for World War II had been ineligible because they were malnourished and too underweight.
So in 1946, the National School Lunch Act provided funds for USDA to buy food and distribute it to public schools. The Agriculture Act of 1949 gave the USDA funding and authority to expand that service to American Indian reservations. However, at that time, the primary mission of USDA food programs was still to buy excess supply, rather than to feed needy Americans.
That changed in January 1961, when President Kennedy issued an executive order calling for a “positive food and nutrition program for all Americans.”
Then in 1966, the Child Nutrition Act and later amendments further codified the importance of nutrition in child development and created or extended several nutrition-focused federal programs. The FDPIR began in 1977, but DoD did not become officially involved until 1996.
Apples and Oranges
Vicki White is a senior citizen whose family, members of the Choctaw tribe, moved to the area from Oklahoma. She’s grateful for the fruits and vegetables she gets from the food center at STOWW, through the FDPIR.
“I get oranges and apples. And grapes, if they’re available,” she said. “If I can’t eat the apples — because I have false teeth — I always give them to somebody who really likes apples. I have a neighbor who has multiple sclerosis, and I give them to her.”
“I love cauliflower and cabbage to make coleslaw and cabbage soup,” White said. “Especially when it comes to the carrots and the celery, because ... you need those and the onions and everything. So with STOWW, I have enough that I can make good soup that’ll last me almost a week.”
“I’m not eligible for food stamps or any other kind of help,” she noted. Without the USDA/DLA program, “I wouldn’t be able to buy as much food, because it’s just too expensive for me.”
Angelina Phansisay, who is Chinook, also picks up produce for her children as well as elders in her community at the STOWW center.
“It’s more than awesome to be able to have fresh fruit,” she said. “It means a lot, I couldn’t be more blessed.”
For more on the DoD Fresh program see “Collards to Kale” in the January−February 2017 issue of Loglines
For more about the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations, check out this on-location video that includes interviews with participants and several DLA Troop Support personnel, available on DLA’s YouTube channel.