Commodities, Bodies, and Budgets

Shauna Osborn
February 21, 2018
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The Trump administration budget request for fiscal year 2019 made the news this week due to many of the changes proposed. There are now tons of articles discussing the drastically reduced funding for the NEA, NEH, TRIO, Medicaid/Medicare, student loan programs, and SNAP. It’s been impossible not to take this news personally since I have benefited from each of these programs at some point in my life. I, my family members, tribal members, and neighbors depend on these programs. I can only hope that Congress can be persuaded to value American lives more than the current presidential administration.

Right now, I want to focus on the SNAP program changes offered up because it doesn’t get much more basic than feeding hungry people. Under the new proposal, more than 80 percent of all SNAP recipients would get half of their benefits in the form of a USDA Foods package. Someone in the administration even compared this “new” idea to Blue Apron. Ummm, no. It’s neither a new idea nor is it anything like Blue Apron. This is the commodities program that many Natives over the age of thirty can tell you all about, just expanded to include more low income people. Commodity food packages are currently available to most tribal members, low income elderly, and WIC recipients; however, the program was decreased when better options became available. Here’s how the package system works: Everyone from a certain area of a reservation/city/state that qualifies go to one location on a designated day and time to pick up the food you’re allowed. If you miss the drop-off, you don’t get anything. If they run out, you don’t get anything. All the stuff is already in a container. If you don’t like what you’ve got or can’t eat it because of allergies or health issues, too bad. Best case scenario is you can trade with someone else picking up their box. Almost everything is a starch with a long shelf life—the opposite of the Blue Apron-type companies. The package usually consists of powdered milk, ready-to-eat cereals, pasta, peanut butter, beans, and canned fruit/vegetables. Sometimes you get cheese, butter, and canned meat as well.

Commodities are the reason Native communities started making fry bread—the large amounts of flour and grease that were provided before so many manufactured starches became available made it an easy, filling food to make often. It also spiked the numbers of Natives with diabetes, heart disease, and other health concerns—all those commodity starches and processed foods without access to fresh options. Since reservations were the first communities where commodity food packages were utilized by the federal government, Indian Health Services has a lot of statistics of just what types of illnesses can be expected from people eating primarily commodity food.

Growing up, my family qualified for commodity boxes. The pick-up point was more than an hour’s drive from where we lived. My grandparents and older cousins would often carpool on commodity pick-up days because gas was expensive and not everyone had cars. That meant only one person per household went to pick up. We tried picking up boxes for other qualified family who were at work during pick-up time, with handwritten notes and IDs from those folks, but it never worked. We requested additional pick-up times and days and locations closer to our hometown. That went nowhere. It was frustrating to say the least. A lot of people just quit trying. The only benefit of living in a rural place so far from the pick-up location was that unlike a lot of the other recipients, we had land. We had a half acre farm where we grew fresh veg and fruit to supplement whatever we got with the commodities. Not everyone had that as an option.

If this massive shift to commodity boxes for 80 percent of SNAP recipients is approved, the repercussions will be severe. Frustrations like the ones my family experienced will abound. While it would save a small amount on the program’s cost up front, it will impact the mental and physical health of individuals needing assistance, which means their medical costs will increase as well. That’s what important to me—the health and well-being of people. But let’s be real here—there’s a lot of money to be made with federal contracts to provide food for low-income families and that’s ultimately what these changes are about. Poor people are not people in these transactions—they’re the commodity. These SNAP changes will lower the profits of EBT accepting markets, like local grocery stores, chains like Walmart and Family Dollar, and farmers’ markets across the US in order to increase profits of a small number of companies who win the bids for federal contracts to supply processed food.The health, dignity, and well-being of millions of Americans is not a concern here. It would be refreshing if poor people could be seen as more than a commodity by politicians.

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