DLA Troop Support, USDA help Native American tribes provide fresh fruits, vegetables

By John R. Bell

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Note: An expanded version of this story will appear as a feature in the March/April 2017 issue of Loglines, DLA’s official flagship magazine.

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, Alaska natives and their neighbors 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 thorough the Department of Defense Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program.

FDPIR provides USDA foods to income-eligible households on Indian reservations and to American Indian households in approved areas near reservations or in Oklahoma. Participants must meet income requirements and not participate in FDPIR and 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 hamlet of Raymond. To the south is the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge, home of one of North America’s last four subspecies of elk.

Indian tribes are still 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 children.

“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," Burks said. "It’s kind of like harvesting them out of the garden without having a garden. My three kids love the food.”

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 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 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. (Look for a feature on the DoD Fresh program in the January/February 2017 issue of Loglines magazine.)

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.”

Serving their communities

Many Native Americans give back to their communities by working for organizations that receive and distribute food received through FDPIR. 

David Gibson, a Navajo, is the assistant director and warehouse manager of the commodity food program at the Small Tribes of Western Washington, in Lakewood. STOWW serves 14 tribes in this part of the state, as well as six in Southeast Alaska and two on the Aleutian Islands. “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."

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."

In the area STOWW serves, deliveries usually become a community event, he 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.

The program’s participants say they appreciate the fresh produce DLA helps provide. Angelina Phansisay, who is Chinook, 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. It means a lot,” she said. “I couldn’t be more blessed.”

For more about FDPIR, check out the Logistics On Location video on the program by clicking below.